Open Water Swimming: Beginners guide

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You’re interested in starting open water swimming but want some more information on how to get started, what you’ll need, and safety information. You’ve come to the right place. This is our comprehensive beginners guide to open water swimming.

Whether you’re interested in open water swimming in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, lochs, or the sea.

One limit that many people face as open water swimming beginners is fear and anxiety around the wildness of open water swimming. For some people it’s the shock of the cold water. For others it’s the unknown of the murky water (whether it’s the depth, the slimy vegetation, or the little creatures you might come across).

But these fears can be overcome letting you soak in the benefits of the open water. Along with the calming effect of connecting with nature and the adrenaline rush and endorphins high from the cold water, swimming in open water is also thought to reduce stress and be beneficial for chronic illnesses.

What you’ll need


Wetsuit - Some open water swimming centres only require wetsuits in colder water temperatures. However, for open water swimming beginners getting used to the cold, wetsuits are an essential piece of kit. Not only does the small amount of water let into the suit quickly warm up and create an insulation layer, but wetsuits also have buoyancy. You can either buy or rent a wetsuit but make sure you check the wetsuit brand website to get the right fit. It is natural to feel like your breathing is restricted in a wetsuit. This will improve once you’re in the water.

Tow float - A tow float or inflatable dry bag is an essential piece of safety kit for open water swimmers, whether a beginner or experienced athlete. Find out what the best dry bags and tow floats are here.

Goggles - Good quality watertight goggles are a must-have for open water swimming. It’s useful to have two pairs of goggles for different weather conditions - tinted lenses for bright sunny swims and clear or polarised goggles for cloudier, dull weather. To ensure your goggles stay in place, fit your swimming cap over the top of your goggle straps.

Swim cap - Swim caps are great for competitive swimmers due to their streamline effect. But for open water swimmers, bright swim caps are important for visibility and for creating a layer of insulation to keep your head warmer on your swim, whether you go for a general swim cap or more insulative swim cap.

Insulating clothes - It’s important to slowly warm yourself up after your swim. One way to do this is to bring layers and insulating clothes to change into after your swim, including a thermal hat.


Boots and gloves - Thermal boots and gloves provide you with an additional layer of protection from the chilly water, great for beginners who are still getting used to the cold water temperature.

Nose clips - Nobody likes getting water up their nose, especially not salty sea water. Protect yourself from the unpredictable waves splashing your face with a nose clip.

Ear plugs - Protect your ears from infections with a quality pair of ear plugs.

Flask of a hot drink - A hot drink is ideal after a swim in the cold water to help warm yourself up. Whether you’re a tea drinker or a coffee lover, a nice hot flask will be a nice end to a refreshing swim.

Energy gels - If you’re going on a longer swim or want the option of an extra energy boost on your swim, it’s useful to have energy gel with you. Bring your energy gel with you in a waterproof bum bag or a tow float with an external pocket or an accessible dry bag so you can access your energy gel while in the water.

Safety features - Safety is the most important thing when swimming in open water. Items like a whistle and a light can help you attract attention if you need help.

Moving from the pool to the outdoors

Before you move to the outdoors, you need to be a strong confident swimmer in a pool environment. Due to the changing conditions in the wild, a planned 1 mile open water swim could turn into a 2 or 3 mile swim. Therefore, it’s important that in a pool you’re able to swim 2 to 3 times the distance you plan on swimming outdoors without stopping or touching the sides or the bottom of the pool. 

Although the pool is a good place to practice your swimming technique and stamina, swimming in a pool is very different to swimming in open water. You often don’t have the security of a wall nearby, the water is colder, and there are currents and choppy water to contend with. You need to be adaptable and this can take some time to learn. Just like you had a teacher to learn to swim in a pool, it might be useful to get a coach or join a club to help you learn the basics of swimming in open water.

Before you get in the water

Swim with others

It is always advised to swim with someone else or have someone spotting you from shore, whether you’re new to open water swimming or have been open water swimming for decades. However much experience you have, you are swimming in nature and nature is not predictable. Sometimes things go wrong and you need someone there to notice if you need help. 

But as a beginner to open water swimming you may not know any fellow open water swimmers to come with you. Joining an open water swim club is a great way to make friends, develop your confidence in the water, and be safe with others. 

If you don’t want to join a club and swim in a group, you could attend an open water swimming centre. At these centres you can swim alone along a designated route of different lengths but there are lifeguards around keeping an eye on you. Usually open between May and October, it is recommended, especially for beginners, to swim in the water during the summer months. Those who swim in open water in the colder winter months are experienced and regularly expose themselves to the cold water temperatures.

Plan ahead

Do your research and plan your swim before heading out. It’s important that before you get in the water you know the temperature and depth of the water, as well as any hazards or wildlife you may come across. For example, check your swim location online to see if there are any strong currents or areas swimmers aren’t allowed. Another thing to check before you head out to your swim location is the weather in case of high winds, torrential rain, or storms that could put you in danger in the water.

Once you get to your swim location, check for any watercraft in the area and identify how far you want to swim, for how long, and what route you’ll take. Make a mental note of any buoys or recognisable points that will signify when you need to turn along your route.

Warm up

Like with all sports, warming up muscles before you exercise helps to reduce your risk of injury, gets your blood pumping through your body, and increases flexibility. Warm ups are especially important for open water swimming as the cold water can increase the chance of mid-swim cramps.

The swim

Getting in the water

Swimming in open water is cold. Jumping straight in can be very dangerous both due to possible rocks under the water and because the cold will shock your body. The best way to get into the water for your swim is to slowly wade or lower yourself into the water. 

You may feel your chest tighten and struggle to catch your breath when the water reaches your chest. This is normal and will dissipate once you’re in the water and moving around. Once your body’s in the water, splash your face and slowly submerge your head. You’re now ready to get going with your swim.

To get used to the cold water temperatures and to practise steady breathing during the shock of the water, we recommend taking cold showers or submerging yourself in a cold bath.

In the shallows

Once in the water, you’ll be able to feel the buoyancy of your wetsuit. On your first open water swim, while in the shallow water, we recommend that you roll onto your back, looking up to the sky. This is a good way to catch your breath and rest in any depth of water. 

However, when doing this, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings as if you’re not paying attention, currents may take you further out into the water than you wanted to go. Feeling the buoyancy of your wetsuit should give you some confidence in the water. But it’s also a good test to undertake in shallow water just in case it makes you feel dizzy so you know whether it’s useful or not when you’re out in deeper water.

On your first few swims, it might also be useful to swim along closer to land along the shore or bank. This allows you to develop your open water swimming technique and to grow your confidence in the water while near the safety of land.


Unlike in the pool, in open water there isn’t a wall or lane markers to keep you heading in the right direction. Instead, open water swimmers use sighting to keep them on track. Identify something static on land that is in the direction you want to go in. This could be a specific building, tree, or flag pole. 

Every three strokes, when you lift your head out of the water for a breath, tilt your head forward to check you’re still heading towards your target. Lifting your head like this may cause your legs to sink a little so we recommend kicking slightly harder when doing this. Once you’re used to sighting, you can reduce the amount of times you check your target to every six or seventh stroke.

We all panic sometimes…but that’s okay

It can be easy to let panic set in when you’re out on a swim surrounded by deep dark water and your mind is overthinking every bad thing that could happen, whether it’s realistic or not. 

To stay calm and avoid overthinking, keep your mind occupied and focused on your swim. Some swimmers make small goals to keep them focused. For example, passing a specific tree on the water side. Other swimmers count their strokes and focus on the next 5 or 10 strokes. 

Try out different methods of staying focused so if you do start to panic, you can calm yourself down. If need be, you can always take a rest by treading water or rolling onto your back before continuing your swim or return to shallower water. Once you’ve learnt how to stay calm in those moments of panic, you’ll be able to enjoy and benefit from your swim more.

Swim technique

One of the most important aspects of any open water swimming is technique. Technique ensures you are efficient in your movements so as not to waste energy, whilst increasing speed, and having a consistent technique to fall back on may help you when you are struggling or panicking. 

Let’s start with your legs - Try to avoid kicking hard and fast. Instead, try just fluttering your legs to keep them high in the water and reduce drag. Your arms should be reaching forward whilst swimming, and should operate alternatively (depending on your chosen stroke - breaststroke or butterfly is the exception) your arms should glide along your side after each stroke. Followed by a directed forward reach for the next stroke.

When engaging in front crawl, practice breathing on both sides. If it is choppy, this ensures you are used to breathing on either side if needs be. Practice taking several strokes whilst holding your breath in case you have to skip a breath occasionally due to waves. Practice irregular breathing in the safety of a swimming pool.

Moving onto the different types of strokes - Front crawl is the most commonly used. It’s the most energy efficient stroke for long distances. There are, however, slower strokes you could use instead (such as breaststroke and butterfly). We do not recommend using backstroke as you will not be able to navigate effectively, and lying on your back can be seen as a distress signal to coastal lifeguards.

You should focus on high stroke rates and bilateral strength to help you tackle challenging and ever-changing conditions, including issues around visibility and common distractions.

Use a swimming pool as your practice arena. Working on technique and endurance, by swimming without stopping and without using the side as a support. Focus on developing arm strength to assist with open water swimming, as your legs are mostly used for balance. Practice sighting in a swimming pool environment.

Changing direction in open water can be challenging, as there is no side or floor to push off from. Practice doing this in a swimming pool, so that you are ready if you ever need to do this without assistance in the open water. 

The last tip around technique we would suggest, is to practice swimming with your eyes closed in a swimming pool, to simulate a time of limited visibility on the open water. Focus on maintaining your technique and breathing consistently even with limited visibility. Mimicking the murkiness of the open water.


Open water racing for the first time? We know that can be a daunting experience. There are many different aspects to consider before setting out on your first race, here are a few basic tips and pointers to help you get started.

Where you choose to race matters. As there are slight differences between open water venues, whether that be in a lake, a river or a race in the sea. Temperature can play a factor for instance, especially in a triathlon; if the water is too warm, then the swim may be tri-suit only. If you are someone who prefers the buoyancy of other wetsuits for comfort, this may be an issue. The majority of triathlons in the UK are wet-suit legal, however, on occasion heatwaves have been known to warm the water. 

The start of a race can be frantic. There will be lots of people thrashing when the gun goes off. If it’s your first time, we advise you to stay at the back or towards the sides to avoid the chaos. Avoid the congestion of the pack, and take control of your immediate surroundings. Set a goal in your mind, and try to stick to it.

Turning can be tricky in a group, your best bet is to stay by the outer edge whilst turning in order to reduce the chances of swimmers coming across your lane. A good tip is to visualise the key elements of the race, things such as the start, the course and any points of exit that will help you beforehand, this will make things easier when you're in intense moments. By visualising possible congested areas or contact points will also help you to avoid those should you wish to do so.  

A final thing to consider would be the length of the race. Races vary in size and can typically range anywhere from 1km to 80km. It’s important to understand your own ability and know what you’re getting yourself into. There are varying lengths along the way such as 5km, 10km and 25km so some people do enjoy working up to the longer races progressively.   


As your technique improves and your strokes become more natural, your confidence will grow. As with most things, you will get better with practice. The important thing to remember is to always practice in a safe environment, before testing your abilities out on the open water. By covering topics such as warming up, getting in the water, sighting, and how to handle stressful situations; we hope you now have a wealth of knowledge spanning the basics of open water swimming. And by using the visualisation techniques we covered, you will be able to plan ahead and make strategic decisions that ensure you have a pleasurable experience at any open water racing event. 

With everything we have covered, we are sure you are primed and ready to go out there and have some fun whilst keeping safe. Seize the day, and swim away. Go start your open water swimming journey now.... what are you waiting for..?

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