Open Sesame – Getting into Open Water Swimming

16th September 2015

Getting into open water swimming is not as intimidating as it looks, says Simon Griffiths…

Humans, through their use of language, have a strange ability to take something ordinary (swimming, for example) and turn it into something seemingly grander, more special, difficult and exclusive (open water swimming or wild swimming, perhaps). While this is only a change in a name it can create barriers to participation, which in the case of swimming is unnecessary.

We don’t help the cause by using jargon and words in unusual contexts, such as ‘catch’, ‘early vertical forearm’ and ‘finger first entry’, which only those in the know understand (or care about). Potential open water swimmers also have to contend with nonswimmers opining about the dangers of the sport, the quality of the water and the horrible temperature. In some cases, open water swimming is deemed an extreme sport. So it’s not surprising that many people are put off. But you shouldn’t be.

If you’ve been looking at open water swimming, wild swimming, outdoor swimming, marathon swimming, river swimming or sea swimming and thinking, “I’d like to give that a go, but I don’t know where to start,” here’s a secret: it’s all just plain, ordinary swimming. One hundred years ago, before we had heated pools, there was no need to adorn the word ‘swimming’ with further description. Children, if they learnt to swim at all, would be taught where water could be found – in the sea, in rivers and in lakes. No doubt some hated the cold, but most, not knowing any different, just got on with it and got used to it. Races were held along stretches of river, and across bays and lakes: distances measured approximately. Otherwise people swam for leisure, enjoying their exercise along with some exposure to nature. Nowadays the sport of swimming is associated with tiled, standardized-length, temperature-controlled, chlorinated pools.

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If you stick with lessons beyond the merely survival stage you’ll be encouraged to train and compete over distances ranging from 25m to 1500m in events where medals are determined by hundredths of a second. If you don’t excel at an early age, the chances are you’ll give up and try another sport. Which is a shame, because swimming is such a wonderful, relaxing activity that it should never be reserved for those who can do it quickly.

Open Sesame - Getting into Open Water Swimming4Fortunately, recent years have seen a revival in interest in swimming beyond of the confines of a pool. Because we have been so conditioned to think of swimming as an indoor, pool-based sport, we’ve dreamed up lots of new names for it. Imagine instead that people going to the local leisure centre had to say, “I’m going pool swimming,” to make it clear they’re swimming inside. Then, if you said, “I’m going swimming,” the assumption would be that you’re heading off to the river or beach.

The point is, don’t think of open water swimming or wild swimming or outdoor swimming as anything special or eccentric or hard. It’s just swimming and it’s one of the simplest things in the world. In fact, if you’ve ever swum in the sea you’re an open water or wild swimmer already.

Changing the way you think about something isn’t the same as doing that thing, and we know that natural bodies of water are intimidating, especially when the majority of your previous swimming experiences are pool based. What’s more, seeing people dressed in wetsuits and wearing worried and serious faces before entering the water adds to the intimidation factor, so how do you get over that and learn to love ‘open water’ swimming?


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Before plunging in, think a little about where you want your swimming journey to take you. Are you interested in racing and competing, conquering long swims (regardless of time), drifing lazily downstream with the current on a hot summer’s day or exploring a swimming beauty spot or all of the above?

Your first open water swim shouldn’t be anything too challenging (it’s frightening how many people turn up to an event clearly never having swum in open water before). Before you spend any money on a wetsuit or fancy goggles, try swimming in an outdoor pool. Usually (but not always) they are cooler than indoor pools. Some are not heated at all. At first the cold may be a shock but give yourself a few minutes to acclimatize and then enjoy the sensation of cool water against your skin.

Your next step might be to try swimming in the sea. We’d recommend finding a lifeguarded beach on a calm day, and spending some time swimming parallel to the shore keeping within your depth. Do this without a wetsuit if possible.

Once you’ve built some confidence in the water your next step in part depends on what you want to do, so we’ve provided a few different scenarios.


Great. Organized swimming events have grown exponentially over the last few years so you have plenty to choose from. Distances range from about half a mile up to 10km and beyond. They take place in rivers, lakes and seas. Wetsuits are o en compulsory (for safety reasons) but sometimes optional. Events are usually timed so there’s a competitive element, which some people fi nd appealing.

How: Make sure you can swim the distance. If you can’t already swim continuously for the required distance (and preferably allowing 20- 30% extra for the vagaries of swimming outside) then give yourself time (at least three to four months) to build up, ideally through two to four (pool) swimming sessions per week. Aim to do some outdoor swimming from around a month before the event. A supervised venue with proper safety cover and plenty of other swimmers is a good option for your fi rst open water experience, but also do try to find a similar body of water to the one your event will take place in. Repeated exposure will help you adjust to the temperature and lack of underwater visibility. If you need a wetsuit, make sure you get advice before buying, and try it in practice before you race. See our beginners’ guides in issues 1 to 4 or go to our website and sign up to our newsletter and receive the guides free of charge.


Lovely. Swimming outside has become increasingly popular. The term ‘wild swimming’ is now frequently used to describe bathing in rivers, lakes and oceans and lends the activity a sense of freedom and rebellion. No special skills (apart from being able to swim) or kit are needed. It appeals to people of all ages and is a great family activity.

How: Wild swimming doesn’t have the organizational structure of mass participation events or Channel swimming so it can be harder to find like minded swimmers in your area, but you could try signing up to the Outdoor Swimming Society, or joining their group on Facebook and posting a message. Next, get hold of a copy of Kate Rew’s Wild Swim or Daniel Starts’s Wild Swimming for advice and places to swim. You could also check out the Wild Swimming Map at A key thing to remember when wild swimming is that you are responsible for your own safety, and for that of the people you’re swimming with. Think before you leap, and look out for each other.


Wow. That’s the big one: the Everest of swimming. You’ll have to swim at least 21 miles, without a wetsuit, in temperatures of between 15 to 17 degrees – and maybe cooler. You’ll need to plan and book your slot a year or two in advance and be prepared for a large financial and personal commitment. A crossing typically takes between 10 and 20 hours.

How: The Channel is too tough a challenge to take lightly. Most people will need several years to succeed and you’ll have to set intermediate goals along the way to keep motivated and make progress. Your aim initially should be to become a long distance swimmer, and someone who can tolerate cold water for extended periods of time. Join a group such as the British Long Distance Swimming Association and start with some of their shorter swims. If you’re based in the UK, try to visit Dover while Channel swimming training is taking place and talk to other swimmers. Take a look at our Oct/Nov 2011 Channel special issue of H2Open for more.


Brr. Winter swimming, and its hard-core cousin ice-swimming, is in some ways a natural extension of wild swimming. While some people like to push the boundaries through distance, others test themselves against the cold. While enjoyed primarily for the challenge, the endorphin rush, the bragging rights and camaraderie, there are also cold water races around the world to take part in. Some people claim it boosts your immune system, although this isn’t proven.

How: Proponents say it’s amazing what your body can get used to in terms of cold water tolerance. It requires frequent exposure and the recommendation usually is to start in late summer and keep swimming through autumn and winter. In London, try the Serpentine or the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath, or find a year-round non-heated lido. Cold water shock can kill, and swimming gets increasingly difficult as your limbs cool down, so approach this sport with caution. See issues 7 and 8 for more.