How do I swim safely in the open water?

As many of us plan training camps or family holidays where you turn it into your own training camp (guilty) sea swimming as the temperature warms up is a great way to practice open water swimming. Also, Easter approaches in the UK and many of us look to get away, the national lakes and open water swimming haunts begin to open.

Once you have the right kit for the water temperature

  • Wetsuit for cold water
  • Brightly coloured hat
  • Tow Float is also great for visibility (can also double as a dry bag for storing keys and mobile)
  • Always let someone know where you are swimming
  • Try a managed venue if you are new to open water.

Open water swimming is a great full stop, it does wonders for the mind, but you can help yourself with these following tips.


Open Water Swimming Safety Tips

1. Check in with a lifeguard

Aside from making sure a lifeguard is on duty, check in with him before you get in the water. Unlike a swimming pool, ocean and beach conditions are constantly changing, but lifeguards know where the riptides are and what the water quality is like. 

2. Breathe on both sides

If you’re teaching yourself basic swim strokes, make sure you learn how to breathe on both sides—not just one. Breathing on your left and on right side every three to five strokes allows you to watch out for kitesurfers, windsurfers, sailboats, powerboats, and marine life. It also balances out your swim stroke, reducing your chances of getting a swimmer’s shoulder. 

3. Swim with a buddy

A swim buddy helps keep you accountable, safe, and working hard. Before you swim make sure you agree where you are going, how far and agree on a safety procedure should be get in to trouble. Having a buddy is also an extra pair of eyes to spot jet skis, boats etc


4. Swim in a designated swimming area

Most parks, beaches, and lakes have designated times where swimming is allowed, as well as flags indicating borders in which you can swim. If you’re in an area without a designated swim zone, swim with a qualified kayaker. If you don’t have this then ask a friend to walk the shoreline or stand guard while you swim. Bottom line: Never swim alone.

5. When in doubt, get out

If you are in the water and something doesn’t feel right trust your gut. Maybe the current is starting to get rough, a storm is approaching, or your body is struggling to keep up (due to muscle cramps, fatigue, exhaustion). Get out of the water and come back another day

6. Stay alert

Be aware of what’s going on around you and listen for motor sounds. Take your head out of the water and look straight ahead periodically to make sure you’re not headed toward something potentially dangerous, or that you’re not drifting too far from shore. It’s very important to practice swimming freestyle with your head up and sighting, so you can check the buoy markers during the race and continue to swim as straight to the goal as possible. This is also crucial during races. The swim portions of triathlon are notoriously crowded. Look up to make sure you don’t swim into anyone or get kicked in the head.


7. Take a break if you need

It’s OK to, on occasion, flip on your back and enjoy some of the scenery during your open-water swims. Also, if you swallow water, relax, slow down, and collect yourself while treading water for a few seconds. It’s common to feel panicked if you can’t get your breathing right at first—especially if you’re competing in a long-distance race for the first time. You want your strokes and pace to be controlled, so take time to reset yourself if things become a bit erratic.


8. Wear a wetsuit and brightly coloured hat

While not totally necessary, wearing a wetsuit drastically improves your buoyancy and your body’s insulation. Full-body swimming wetsuits (not surfers’ wetsuit) are ideal for open-water swimming, especially if the water is cold. They can also help your body regulate its temperature, so you can focus on keeping your breathing and strokes controlled. If you’re freezing, you run the risk of rushing and becoming frenzied. If you get tired, the suit will also help you float so you don’t have to work as aggressively to tread water. Wear a brightly coloured swim hat so you can be seen in the water. Tow floats can also help with this and using one with a drybag area can be used to store things like a mobile phone and hydration.


9. Learn when to draft and when to drift

Try to work with other swimmers by drafting (swimming within a few feet behind another swimmer or at their side) off each other. Unlike pool swimming, where everyone stays in their lane, open water can be much more physical, but drafting can ease some of the toll by lessening the drag. Stay close but be respectful of other swimmers’ space (e.g., don’t claw your partner’s feet every other stroke). 


10. Pace yourself

If you’re a beginner, take your time and build your effort throughout the swim. Take regular freestyle ‘breaks’ by taking relaxed breaststroke or backstroke. Keep your tempo consistent and as high as possible, keeping in mind the distance of your race or the distance you have decided to swim.


Written by – Karen Parnell 

British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 3 High Performing Coach and Tutor and ASA Open Water Swimming Coach. She is also a qualified NASM Personal Trainer, Nivel 3 Técnicos Federados FATRI España and IRONMAN® Certified Coach as well as being a Stryd running with power coach. Karen is based near Malaga in Southern Spain where she runs ChiliTri In the coaching and camps. She provides training plans via TrainingPeaks, FinalSurge and Training Tilt.