Open Water Swimming: A Complete 8-Step Guide To Get Started

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There’s one glaring fear for most novice prospective triathletes: the open water swim.

There are lots of challenges in open water swimming, which we would like to help you get a clear understanding of as you start on your open water swimming journey.

Some examples include how to sight when open water swimming, dealing with currents and potential water creatures, and the dreaded “washing machine“ mass swim start where all of the competitors in your division descend upon the open water swim, leaving you trying to navigate a sea of moving arms and kicking legs at the start of your race.

In this article, we will provide tips for how to swim in open water to help dismantle some of that fear you may hold surrounding this portion of a triathlon race or even just trying to get in a good workout swimming in open water on vacation.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Open Water Swimming?
  • How to Swim In Open Water

Let’s jump in!

A person open water swimming in the ocean.

What Is Open Water Swimming?

Open water swimming refers to swimming in a body of water that is not a swimming pool. An open water swim might occur in the ocean, a bay, a lake, a pond, a river, and so on.

Aside from indoor triathlons, nearly all triathlon races include an open water swim as the first leg of the race. There are also standalone open water swim events, some of which are competitive and others that are community-driven recreational events or charity events.

How to Swim In Open Water

Preparing for your first open water swim can be really daunting and scary, depending on your comfort with swimming in general, as well as any potential fears you may have about the ocean for open water.

Here are some tips for how to prepare for open water swimming:

A person open water swimming in the ocean.

#1: Practice Your Strokes

The more confident you can become in your swimming strokes, the stronger and more capable you will feel during an open water swim.

You won’t have to worry as much about feeling physically unprepared for the distance of the open water swim, and if you are swimming strokes have become so ingrained and mastered that they feel like second nature, you will only have to focus on the added challenges of swimming in open water vs. a swimming pool rather than worrying about the swim itself.

Most triathletes use the front crawl during an open water swim because it is a fast stroke and can be sustained for long distances as long as you have trained.

With that said, it’s important to have a backup stroke that you feel comfortable doing in case you tire during the open water swim. Backstroke, breaststroke, or sidestroke are good alternatives to master as well.

If you are not confident in your swimming ability, consider getting some one-on-one swim coaching, taking swim lessons, or joining a Master’s swim team.

Learning the proper technique and then practicing and training will help you feel more confident and prepared once you try swimming in open water.

A person open water swimming in the ocean at sunset.

#2: Build Your Endurance 

One of the primary differences between doing an open water swim and swimming in a pool is that there are no walls to push off against during the open water swim. 

You have to keep going and going, and you cannot put your feet down or grab onto the wall in between laps. Additionally, you don’t get that boost by pushing off the wall every 25 yards or so.

For this reason, it’s really important to focus on keeping your swimming workouts as true to open water swimming as possible. Try not to stop between laps or touch your feet down on the floor of the pool, or rely too heavily on the push-off from the wall during each lap.

Of course, during swimming interval workouts in your training, you can, and should, stop periodically when the interval is over, but you should also be doing a long-distance endurance swim that builds you up to at least the total distance of the open water swim in your race so that you are prepared to swim nonstop for the entire duration. 

Adding extra distance in your training that surpasses the distance of the open water swim race will help provide a built-in insurance policy that you can complete the distance since you won’t have that added bonus of the wall push-off between every lap.

A person open water swimming in the ocean at sunset.

#3: Learn Bilateral Breathing

One of the harder swimming techniques to master, but one that is very important for open water swimming, is bilateral breathing. This involves being able to turn your head to either side during your front crawl swimming stroke rather than always relying on turning to one side.

One of the biggest challenges that people face is how to sight when open water swimming.

This refers to being able to keep your eye on where you are supposed to be headed so that you swim in the right direction and do not veer too far off course. When you swim in a pool, there is a black line painted on the bottom of the pool to help you stay in your lane, as well as lane markers. 

During an open water swim, there will be buoys denoting the swim course, and you have to check the trajectory of your swimming periodically, termed sighting, to make sure that you are on course.

A person open water swimming in the ocean.

Bilateral breathing can help facilitate sighting because if you can breathe on both sides of your body, you can keep your eyes on the direction you need to be headed no matter where the buoys are without throwing off your form.

Consider, for example, a case of a novice swimmer who is only comfortable doing the front crawl and turning their head to the right side. If they are performing a counterclockwise loop open water swim, the buoys will be located on the left side of the body. 

This means that when you turn your head to take a breath, the buoys will be out of view unless you crane your neck. This will alter your form and reduce the efficiency of your swimming stroke. Plus, you are more apt to veer off course and end up swimming extra distance.

Another benefit of bilateral breathing is that the water might be wavy with the current in one direction, or there might be another swimmer nearly on top of you in the direction that you normally like to turn your head. 

Having the flexibility to be able to breathe on both sides will help reduce the impact of some of these issues.

It can feel unnatural at first to start bilateral breathing but practice in the swimming pool until it feels like second nature.

People open water swimming in a triathlon.

#4: Practice Sighting

How to sight when swimming in open water is one of the most important skills for open water swimming and one of the biggest differentiators between open water swimming and swimming in a pool.

There are a few different techniques and drills you can use to learn how to sight when open water swimming.

When sighting during open water swimming, you want to discreetly try to glance up in front of your body periodically as you swim, much like a crocodile surreptitiously taking a quick glance forward and then popping your head back in place for your next stroke.

Most coaches recommend practicing swimming with your eyes closed to help you get familiar with the direction you tend to veer towards, and then continue practicing swimming longer without veering— starting with just a few strokes at a time and then gradually adding a couple more.

A person open water swimming in the ocean.

#5: Learn to Tread Water 

Knowing how to tread water is not only a good fallback in case you get tired during the open water swim and need a minute or two to rest your arms, but some triathlon races actually begin with the competitors standing in the water, depending on the race course, you might have to do some treading before the swim even begins.

#6: Practice Being Crowded

This may sound odd, but it’s important to have some familiarity with the feeling of a mass swim start. There will be swimmers all over and around you, with legs, arms, and bodies flailing into you and blocking where you can see and swim.

Joining a swim group or having some friends join you during a swim workout and essentially try blocking you or getting in your way will help reduce some of the panic of dealing with the crowds you might experience during your first open water swim.

A person in a wet suit putting on his goggle to open water swim.

#7: Get a Wetsuit

Depending on the season and climate in which you are going to race, many triathlons are “wetsuit legal,” which means you can wear a wetsuit.

A wetsuit not only helps insulate your body if you are doing a cold water open water swim, but it also provides some buoyancy, reducing the effort necessary to keep your body afloat.

Check to see if your race allows wetsuits.

If so, get one, but make sure that it fits properly and practice wearing it several times in the pool to get familiar with how it impacts your shoulder mobility. 

Also, practice getting the wetsuit off as quickly as possible, as this will factor into your time for transition one before heading out onto the bike.

A person open water swimming in the lake.

#8: Practice In Open Water

If at all possible, practice swimming in open water before your triathlon or open water swim race. How long should you swim in open water if you get the chance? As with anything new, start slow and work your way up to the distance you will be swimming in the race. The better prepared you are, the more comfortable you will feel on race day.

Always make sure that you swim with a group or somewhere where a lifeguard is present, especially if it is your first time swimming in open water.

You can do it!

If you are looking into trying a triathlon out, check out our triathlon guides for helpful training tips.

A person open water swimming in the ocean.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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