Riding the waves: A guide to open water swimming

Open water swimming is a terrific way to get in some workout outside, whether preparing for a triathlon or just searching for a new approach to get in shape. Before you hit the water for your first competitive open-water swim, arm yourself with knowledge about the sport’s rich history and the fundamental techniques you’ll need to succeed.

Wild swimming, or open water swimming, is a style in natural environments such as lakes, rivers, and oceans. While many people associate open water swimming with competitive events like triathlons and marathon swims, this type of swimming benefits everyone, regardless of skill level. Most open water swimmers use the front crawl, in which they stretch forward with their left and right arms to push the water back and drive themselves forward while simultaneously kicking their legs, typically in a flutter kick, to cover greater distances in fewer amounts of time.

Swimming in open water is more exciting and taxing on the body than swimming in a pool because of the varying temperatures, water clarity, and high waves. Outdoor sports are great for getting in shape and having fun, but they may also be intimidating for a first-timer because of the risks involved.

We polled three swimming instructors for their thoughts on how to make a move from a pool to the ocean (or a lake, reservoir, or river) safe and fun.

Get Your Stamina Up

Riding the waves: A guide to open water swimming

We recommend being able to swim twice or thrice that distance continuously in a pool before venturing into open water for training. Due to the unpredictable nature of open-water conditions, a mile in the ocean will take significantly longer and seem more difficult than the same distance in a pool. If you want to keep your energy levels up throughout what may end up being a 55-minute battle with the waves, you need to train for it in the pool first.

This is a crucial ability when sailing uncharted seas because it allows you to rest briefly while continuing to make progress.

The Art of Perfect Alternate Breathing

Most swimmers have a dominant side on which they breathe, but this can be dangerous once they enter the water. When the wind, waves, swell, and current are different strengths and directions, breathing normally can be difficult, if not impossible if you consistently prefer one side. As Simonelli puts it, avoid the trap of thinking you can rely on patterns like you would in the pool. Practicing deep, relaxed breathing on both sides of your body and holding your breath for numerous strokes can prepare you for the inevitable moment when you’ll need to swim without taking a breath or getting water in your face.

Practice this by taking three breaths on your right side, five on your left, eight on your right, and four on your left while you swim laps to hone your erratic breathing. Alternatively, you might breathe between each stroke and exhale for a longer time.

Ignore the Wall and Make a U-Turn

Riding the waves: A guide to open water swimming

Since there is no wall or bottom surface to push off in open water, shifting directions or stopping and starting can be difficult, Evans recommends executing a set in the pool where you stop short of the wall and tumble turn at the flags to practice moving without that assistance.

Take off your glasses

Clouds are more common on the open ocean than in your neighborhood pool. It’s an unusual sensory sensation to have your field of vision limited to only a few inches in front of you. Triathlon instructor and six-time Ironman World Champion from Boulder, Colorado, Dave Scott, recommends training for these situations by swimming with one’s eyes closed while wearing goggles. Put your goggles back on and rest for a minute while treading water in the middle of the lane before continuing your six to ten-stroke swim. Keep going in this fashion for a while, occasionally switching up your breathing and stroke rate. The aim is to train yourself to proceed with proper form and to breathe even when visibility is poor or nonexistent.

Swing away!

Depending on the circumstances, your stroke selection should adapt accordingly. To avoid being tossed about by the waves, Simonelli recommends taking shorter, shallower strokes rather than long; deep arm pulls in very choppy water. When the sea is calm, or the surf is coming at you from behind, it may be more effective to take longer, deeper pulls.

In the pool, practice this variation by alternating between long, smooth, deep arm pulls and short, shallow pulls. Additional benefit: Simonelli says that if you change up your stroke throughout a lengthy open water swimming, you can reduce the strain that the same motion can put on your body, particularly your shoulders.

Get Some Eyeball Time In

Lakes don’t have lane lines, and oceans don’t have backstroke flags. This necessitates becoming proficient at sighting, the practice of looking about for landmarks while swimming to verify one’s direction of travel.

It would be best if you made a breathing motion with your head while you swim, turning your head to the side as you do so. The next step is to turn your head forward and out of the water while simultaneously removing your goggles. Scott argues that you should keep your neck and chin underwater, whereas Simonelli advises that you minimize the amount of your head lifted. It would help if you kicked harder than usual to counteract the natural sagging of your lower body. Simonelli chimes in, “As you sight, exhale (rather than inhale) or hold your breath.” As you tilt your head forward, your ability to inhale water will be reduced.

Scott recommends beginning sighting exercises in the pool with huge items, such as a tree or a neighboring structure, and gradually increasing the difficulty by adding smaller objects, such as a pine cone or a pair of flip-flops. Simonelli suggests doing two or three consecutive sighting strokes and then returning to your regular swimming technique.

Figure Out How to Unwind

Riding the waves: A guide to open water swimming

Depending on the season, latitude, and size of the body of water, the temperature of open water can range from the low thirties to the high nineties (and above). Cooler bodies of water, such as the Pacific Ocean or some of the Great Lakes, can be mentally and physically unpleasant to individuals not acclimated to them.

Most people, explains, experience a tightening of muscles and a shallowing of respiration after entering cool water. Wearing a wetsuit can lessen the intensity of this reaction, but it won’t prevent it. Simonelli says that controlling an overwhelming sense of terror “begins and finishes with the breathing.”

Take cold showers or completely immerse yourself in cold baths while taking slow, deep breaths to prepare for the initial shock. The experience of standing or sitting in cold water differs from swimming, but it may make the initial stages of an open water swimming more manageable.

Open Water Swimming Techniques

Open water swimming is a test of stamina and technique, especially when covering huge distances and no defined lanes. These five fundamental tactics are common knowledge among open-water swimmers.

In most open water competitions, swimmers can use whichever stroke 

1. Front crawl

Backstroke is the only swimming technique discouraged for open water races because it prevents the swimmer from seeing the course ahead.) To create more force with one’s arms. However, the front crawl (freestyle) has become the most common swimming technique. Swimmers normally flutter their legs when performing the front crawl; however, cutting back on the number of kicks might assist in conserving energy.

2. Sighting

Riding the waves: A guide to open water swimming

As there are no lane lines in the open water swimming, swimmers employ a technique called sighting to keep themselves swimming in a straight course. This is accomplished by picking a marker and maintaining eye contact while swimming.

3. Drafting

When  drafting closely follows a rival to lessen the water resistance between you and them.

4. Turning

To avoid swimming directly back and forth along the shoreline, many events employ buoys as the turning locations. If you’re a beginner open-water swimmer, you should practice turning without touching the pool’s bottom or side.

5. Bilateral breathing

Breathing on both sides of the body is called “bilateral breathing,” It is the standard method used by competitive swimmers. If breathing underwater is unfamiliar, try doing drills in a pool before venturing into open water.

Open Water Swimming Tips

1. Don’t swim alone

First of all, you shouldn’t go swimming by yourself. Open water swimming presents risks due to the unpredictable nature of the water. It’s a good idea to bring a friend along in any difficulty.

2. Find a swimming center

You might join a swimming club that offers open water training to meet coaches, fellow swimmers, and new friends. Swimming lessons, lifeguards, and designated paths are available at outdoor pools.

3. Invest in a wetsuit

Riding the waves: A guide to open water swimming

When it comes to open water swimming and competition, a bikini just won’t cut it. Retaining body heat, buoyancy, and protection from debris and animals in the water are all improved while wearing a neoprene wetsuit. Investing in earplugs, which keep water out of your ears and prevent infections, and a swim hat, which traps body heat and keeps hair out of your face, are also good ideas. You can also boost your visibility in the water by wearing a bright swim cap.

Fourth, adjust your stroke so that it works better with the water. Swimming in the open water differs from swimming in a pool because you may encounter strong waves or rough water. Even while the front crawl is the most prevalent swimming technique, you may need to resort to alternative methods—like the more energy-efficient breaststroke or treading water—to deal with adverse conditions or exhaustion. 

When applying these strategies outside the chlorine box, remember to concentrate on your breathing and relish the thrill of your newfound freedom.

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