HomeSwimComplete Guide to Open Water Swimming: Tips, Training & Gear

Complete Guide to Open Water Swimming: Tips, Training & Gear

Open water swimming, often regarded as the purest form of swimming, offers a unique blend of challenge and serenity. As a triathlete or a swimmer seeking adventure beyond the pool, understanding the nuances of open water swimming is crucial.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore what open water swimming entails, the various types of open water environments, how it differs from pool swimming, the diverse events you can participate in, essential training strategies, and the equipment you’ll need to navigate these unbounded waters.

What is Open Water Swimming?

Open water swimming involves swimming in natural bodies of water such as oceans, lakes, rivers, or even reservoirs. Unlike pool swimming, where lanes provide structure and water conditions are controlled, open water swimming presents a dynamic and unpredictable environment, making it both exhilarating and challenging.

Types of Open Water Swimming Environments

Ocean Swimming

Embracing the vastness of the sea, ocean swimming offers swimmers the opportunity to navigate waves, tides, and currents, often amidst breathtaking coastal landscapes.

I know it’s obvious, but the sea is salty! If you event is a sea swim it’s worth getting out in the sea beforehand and getting used to the salty taste as you swim. You may also get salt water in your eyes which may sting so something to think about.

Lake Swimming

Lakes provide a tranquil setting for open water swimming, with calmer waters compared to the ocean but still presenting challenges such as wind and water temperature variations.

Lakes tend to be fresh water so the taste of the water (you will get water in your mouth!) will be more like that of pool swimming plus won’t sting your eyes like the sea.

River Swimming

River swimming introduces swimmers to flowing currents and varying depths, requiring adaptability and strategic navigation. This can be dangerous so ensure the river you choose is safe for swimming.

Other Environments

Open water swimming can also occur in reservoirs, fjords, or even channels, each offering its own set of challenges and rewards.

Wherever you choose to swim in open water it’s always worth ensuring it is safe to do so with lifeguards, shore spotters or safety craft.

Plan where you will enter and exit the water and tell your loved ones where you are going.

Here’s some safety tips:

Pool Swimming vs. Open Water Swimming -Differences and Similarities

Pool swimming and open water swimming share the fundamental activity of propelling oneself through water using various stroke techniques. However, they differ significantly in environment, technique, and experience. Understanding these differences is crucial for swimmers transitioning between pool and open water settings:

The Environment

Pool Swimming

Pool swimming takes place in a controlled environment with standardized conditions, including temperature regulation, clear water visibility, and marked lanes for structured swimming. Swimmers benefit from consistent water depth, smooth surfaces, and the absence of natural elements such as waves, currents, and wildlife.

Open Water Swimming

In contrast, open water swimming occurs in natural bodies of water such as oceans, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, where conditions are dynamic and unpredictable.

Swimmers must navigate waves, tides, currents, wind, changing water temperatures, and potentially murky or choppy waters. Open water environments also introduce factors like wildlife encounters and varying depths, adding to the challenge and excitement of the swim.

Swim Technique

Pool Swimming

Pool swimmers typically focus on refined stroke technique, efficient turns, and consistent pacing over defined distances. Techniques such as flip turns and underwater streamline kicking are common in pool swimming, maximizing speed and efficiency within the confined lanes.

Open Water Swimming

In open water, swimmers must adapt their technique to cope with external factors and navigate the natural environment. Sighting, or lifting the head to orient oneself and maintain course, becomes essential for navigating without lane markers.

Swimmers may also employ bilateral breathing to enhance visibility and awareness of surroundings, and they may modify stroke mechanics e.g. straight arm recovery to account for choppy water or currents.

Your Experience

Pool Swimming

Pool swimming offers a controlled and comfortable environment conducive to focused training and competition. Swimmers benefit from consistent conditions, access to amenities such as lap counters and timing systems, and the camaraderie of training with others in a shared space.

Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming provides a sense of adventure, exploration, and connection with nature that pool swimming cannot replicate. Swimmers experience the freedom of swimming in expansive waterscapes, the challenge of conquering natural elements, and the thrill of discovering new destinations.

Open water events often foster a strong sense of community and camaraderie among participants, with shared experiences and support in overcoming challenges.

Safety Considerations

Pool Swimming

Pool swimming is generally considered safer than open water swimming due to controlled conditions and lifeguard supervision. Swimmers benefit from clear visibility, shallow water depths, and immediate access to assistance in case of emergencies.

Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming presents inherent risks such as cold-water exposure, currents, waves, and limited visibility. Swimmers should prioritize safety by wearing appropriate gear, swimming with a buddy or in supervised areas, and familiarizing themselves with water conditions and emergency procedures.

Using swim buoys for visibility and carrying safety devices like whistles or personal locator beacons can enhance safety in open water environments.

While pool and open water swimming offer distinct experiences, they both contribute to a well-rounded swimmer’s skill set and fitness. Whether training in the controlled environment of a pool or embracing the challenges of open water, swimmers can benefit from cross-training and adapting their skills to excel in both settings.

Types of Open Water Swimming Events

Distance Events

Ranging from shorter distances like 1 mile to marathon swims exceeding 10 kilometers, distance events cater to a wide range of abilities and endurance levels. There are lots of events out there, with more cropping up every season, in the 1- to 2-mile range that would make a great target for your first open water race.

 They are categorized as:

  • 1 Mile Swim: These swim races are a great place to start and tend to be fun events but if you are a competitive person they do have prizes the top three in each age group. Events like the Midmar Mile in South Africa and Lake Moomaw 1-Mile Open Water Swim in Virginia fall into this space.
  • 2 miles: (USMS Cable Swim National Championship event distance) swims offer a moderate challenge suitable for intermediate swimmers. Examples include the Great North Swim in the UK and the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim in the USA.
  • 3.1 miles: 5K Open Water Swim are a good test for most swimmers but not beyond the grasp of all swimmers given enough time to train with a structured training plan. Examples include Swim Miami 5K and the Eton Dorney Long Swim in the UK fall into this category.
  • 6.2 miles: 10 kilometers, the threshold for “marathon” swimming (anything longer than this is considered a marathon) Long-distance marathon swims test endurance and mental resilience. Examples include the English Channel Swim, the Rottnest Channel Swim in Australia, and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in the USA. But there are also 10km swims such as Swim with a Mission in New Hampsire, US, the Dart 10k in the UK and the iconic Swim Downhill 24 swim in Finland.

Open water racing offers a myriad of unconventional distances and races across the United States and around the world. This diversity is one of the many charms of open water swimming: each race is uniquely shaped by the course, conditions, and competitors on the day. It’s a constant challenge against the elements and one’s own capabilities, ensuring that no two swims are ever the same.

Once you’ve mastered the 1-mile swim, it may be time to set your sights on a new challenge. Consider pushing your limits with a 2-mile event or even a 5K swim. When selecting a stretch goal, prioritize safety and ensure you have ample time to train.

Develop a tailored training plan, maintain motivation, and above all, enjoy the journey. In open water swimming, every day brings a new adventure.

Triathlon Swims

Open water swimming is a fundamental component of triathlon races, with swim legs varying in distance depending on the triathlon category. Here are the main distances and events for triathlon open water swims:

  • Sprint Triathlon: Sprint triathlons typically feature a shorter swim leg, making them accessible to beginners and ideal for those looking for a fast-paced challenge. The swim distance in a sprint triathlon is usually around 750 meters, although it can vary slightly depending on the event. Examples of sprint triathlons include the Chicago Triathlon and the Dorney Triathlon in the UK.
  • Olympic Distance Triathlon: Olympic distance triathlons, also known as standard distance or International triathlons, feature a longer swim leg compared to sprint triathlons. The swim distance in an Olympic triathlon is 1.5 kilometers (or 1500 meters), providing a more substantial challenge for intermediate triathletes. Events like the World Triathlon Series races and the Ironman 5150 distance triathlons.
  • Half Ironman (Ironman 70.3) or Middle distance Triathlon: Half Ironman triathlons, also known as Ironman 70.3 events, offer a middle ground between Olympic distance and full Ironman races. The swim distance in a half Ironman triathlon is 1.9 kilometers (1.2 mile), providing a challenging yet attainable distance for athletes seeking a longer race without committing to the full Ironman distance. Events like Ironman 70.3 World Championship and Ironman 70.3 races held globally offer half Ironman distance triathlons. There are also middle distance races from the Challenge family.
  • Ironman or Full distance Triathlon: Ironman triathlons are renowned for their grueling distances, including a challenging open water swim leg. The swim distance in a full Ironman triathlon is 3.8 kilometers (or 2.4 mile), testing the limits of endurance and mental resilience for seasoned triathletes. Examples of Ironman events include the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii or Nice, France, and Ironman events held worldwide in locations such as Austria, Brazil, and New Zealand. The are also full distance events from the Challenge family.
  • T100 Triathlon Events: T100 triathlons feature a 2km open water swim and are becoming popular as an alternative to half iron events.
  • The supertri triathlon series has sprint and Olmypic distance swims which are 0.47-0.5 miles (750-800 meters)and 0.9 miles (1500 meters) respectively. Some events also have a supersprint event which is a 0.24 mile (370-400 meter) swim.

These triathlon open water swim distances cater to athletes of varying abilities and experience levels, providing opportunities for personal growth, competition, and achievement. Whether you’re aiming to complete your first sprint triathlon or conquer the ultimate challenge of a full Ironman race, the swim leg sets the stage for an exhilarating multisport experience.

SwimRun Challenges

Combining swimming and running over varied terrain, SwimRun events push participants to transition seamlessly between land and water.

Swimrun is a new sport where you complete a pre-defined course with multiple swim and run stages. 

SwimRun events combine swimming and running over varied terrain, with distances ranging from short courses to ultra-distance challenges.

A typical swimrun course might be 80% running and 20% swimming where you might have 5 swim legs and 5 run legs. Swimrun course vary from 5km in length to over 80km endurance events.

Swimrun is typically participated in a team of two where you will need to stay within 10m with your partner. In 2021, solo entries were widely brought in across a number of different races. 

ÖTILLÖ: The original SwimRun race, ÖTILLÖ hosts events around the world, including the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championship in Sweden and various qualifying races.

The SwimRun distances are:

  • ‘Sprint’ race is between 10km – 20km total of swimming and running.
  • ‘Full’ course race 25km – 50km total of swimming and running.
  • ‘Ultra’ typically comprise of anywhere between 40-50km of running and around 9km of swimming broken down into numerous running and swimming sections.

It may seem a bit confusing but SwimRun events are often dictated by the terrain but they all have one thing in common – they are a lot of fun and a great way to share your love of open water swimming and running with a buddy!

Other Types of Open Water Swimming Events

Specialized events like charity swims, relay races, or adventure swims offer diverse opportunities for open water enthusiasts. These include:

These events not only test physical endurance but also foster a sense of community and adventure among open water swimming enthusiasts. Whether you’re aiming to conquer a personal challenge or seeking new experiences in stunning natural settings, there’s an open water swimming event for everyone.

How to Train for Open Water Swimming

Preparing for open water swimming requires a blend of technique, endurance, and mental fortitude. An open water swim training plan could include:

  • Regular pool sessions focusing on stroke technique and endurance.
  • Specific open water sessions to practice sighting, navigation, and adapting to different conditions.
  • Strength and flexibility training to enhance overall performance and prevent injuries.

Mental conditioning to build confidence and resilience in challenging environments.

Example Open Water Swimming Session

Rather like you would in a swimming pool it’s always good to have an open water swimming session plan, so you focus on specific areas of your swim. Here is an example open water swim session.

Equipment Needed

  • Wetsuit: Provides thermal insulation and buoyancy, essential for regulating body temperature and enhancing buoyancy in colder waters.
  • Swim Cap and Goggles: Protects the head and eyes from water exposure and enhances visibility.
  • Swim Buoy: Offers visibility to other swimmers and safety in open water, also serving as a flotation device if needed.
  • Navigation Aids: Compasses or GPS devices help swimmers stay on course during longer swims or in unfamiliar waters. These days this is usually a sports swim watch with built in GPS.
  • Safety Equipment: Whistles, personal locator beacons, and first aid kits are essential for safety and preparedness in remote or challenging environments.


Open water swimming presents a thrilling opportunity to connect with nature, challenge yourself, and explore new horizons.

By understanding the dynamics of open water environments, honing essential skills, and equipping yourself with the right gear, swimmers can embark on a journey of adventure and self-discovery in the vast expanse of open water.

Stay tuned for our next article, where we delve deeper into advanced training strategies for open water swimming success.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Open Water Swimming:

What is open water swimming?

Open water swimming involves swimming in natural bodies of water such as oceans, lakes, rivers, or reservoirs, as opposed to swimming in a controlled environment like a pool. It presents unique challenges due to variable conditions such as waves, currents, and water temperature.

What are the benefits of open water swimming?

Open water swimming offers numerous benefits including improved cardiovascular fitness, enhanced mental well-being, and the opportunity to connect with nature. It also provides a sense of adventure and accomplishment as swimmers navigate challenging environments.

What equipment do I need for open water swimming?

Essential equipment for open water swimming includes a swimsuit, swim cap, goggles, and in colder waters, a wetsuit. Additionally, it’s advisable to use a swim buoy for visibility and safety, especially in open water areas with boat traffic.

How should I train for open water swimming?

Training for open water swimming should include a combination of pool sessions focusing on technique and endurance, as well as specific open water sessions to practice sighting, navigation, and adapting to different conditions. Strength and flexibility training are also beneficial.

What are the different types of open water swimming events?

Open water swimming events vary in distance and format, including sprint, middle, and long-distance swims, triathlon swims, SwimRun challenges, charity swims, relay races, and adventure swims. Each offers unique experiences and challenges for participants.

How can I stay safe while open water swimming?

Safety is paramount in open water swimming. Always swim in designated areas with lifeguard supervision when possible. Be aware of water conditions, weather forecasts, and your own abilities. Use proper equipment, swim with a buddy, and familiarize yourself with emergency procedures.

What should I do if I encounter marine life while open water swimming?

While encounters with marine life are rare, it’s important to remain calm and avoid sudden movements. Give marine animals space and avoid touching or harassing them. If you encounter a potentially dangerous animal, calmly and slowly exit the water while keeping it in sight.

How can I find open water swimming events near me?

You can find open water swimming events through online directories, local swim clubs, and event websites. Research events in your area and consider factors such as distance, location, and level of experience required before registering.

Do I need to be a strong swimmer to participate in open water swimming events?

While proficiency in swimming is necessary, open water swimming events cater to a wide range of abilities, from beginners to experienced swimmers. Start with shorter distances and gradually build your skills and confidence over time.

What should I do if I experience cramps or fatigue during an open water swim?

If you experience cramps or fatigue while swimming, stop and rest if needed. Try changing your stroke or swimming on your back to alleviate muscle strain. If you’re unable to continue, signal for assistance and wait for help to arrive. Always prioritize your safety and well-being.

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Karen Parnell
Karen Parnell
Karen Parnell is a Level 3 British Triathlon and IRONMAN Certified Coach, WOWSA Level 3 open water swimming coach,  80/20 Endurance certified coach and NASM Personal Trainer and Sports Technology Writer. Need a training plan? I have plans on TrainingPeaks, FinalSurge and TrainingTilt: TrainingPeaks FinalSurge TrainingTilt I also coach a very small number of athletes one to one for all triathlon distances, open water swimming events and running races, email me for details and availability.


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