Open-water swimming guide: tips, benefits and expert advice on how to do it safely
We’ve got the ultimate guide to open-water swimming, whether a beginner or seasoned swimmer. From how to prepare and its positive benefits, to invaluable advice from swimming experts - are you ready to dive in?
Open-water swimming is a great way to immerse yourself in nature while also improving your swimming technique and challenging your endurance. It’s budget-friendly, suitable for all abilities and overall a great fun experience. And it’s becoming a very popular activity, especially as the sun starts to come out.
Here at The Recommended, we’ve dived straight in to find out more about open-water swimming to bring you the ultimate guide for taking the plunge. From the essential kit you need and the safety precautions to take, to the huge host of positive benefits to your mental and physical health and wellbeing - we’ve included everything you need to know.
Read on for expert advice and top tips to keep you afloat and supercharge your wild side of swimming.
What is open-water swimming?
According to Swim England, open-water swimming, also known as wild swimming, ‘takes place anywhere that isn’t a swimming pool. This means no man-made sides or bottom and no large ropes or black lines to follow.’ Popular open-water swimming spots include the sea, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and lochs.
The benefits of open-water swimming
Open-water swimming has multiple benefits for both your physical and mental health. Sports brand Sweaty Betty explains that it’s ‘a great way to reconnect with nature, increase your strength and endurance and enjoy a raw, invigorating workout while you’re at it.’ We’ve covered some of the other top benefits below:
- Improves mood and reduces stress and anxiety: Being outside can have a positive impact on your mental health, helping decrease levels of stress and anxiety and boosting your overall mood. Diving into cold water also benefits your mental state by promoting the release of ‘happy hormones’ serotonin and dopamine, as medical insurer Vitality explains. Our expert open-water coach Sue also explained how open-water swimming is the most stress-free part of her week and how ‘it helps me centre myself and relax; it’s a real escape. This, in turn, helps me to deal with any stressful moments at work or in my personal life.’
- It’s mindful: Swimming in cold water outside encourages you to be in the moment - ‘you’re focusing on your breathing, the feeling of cold water on your skin, the natural world around you’. Wild swimming helps us disconnect from everyday stresses and focus on being meditative, according to Vitality.
- Improves sleep: Open-water swimming can help encourage a better night's sleep. According to Swim England, ‘open-water swim training can result in a natural increase in the levels of a certain hormone called prolactin in the body’, which can ‘help to improve the quality of your sleep’.
- Strengthens immune system: Swimming outside has been shown to boost the immune system. Swim England explains that swimming in colder water can ‘reduce the potential over-production of certain hormones that can contribute to impaired immunity, in effect making your body more robust and resistant to infection.’
- Improves circulation: Another benefit of open-water swimming is increased blood flow and improved circulation. The team at Wild Swimming Cornwall explains that ‘when you immerse your body in cold water, your blood rushes to surround your vital organs. This stimulation encourages your heart to pump faster and your capillaries and veins to constrict, speeding up blood flow and circulation and strengthening your circulatory system.’ This improved circulation can also benefit the skin, flushing out toxins, ‘giving us a healthier complexion’.
- Burns calories: Swimming outside in the elements requires more energy than a regular swim in the pool due to the cold temperatures, meaning you will burn more calories.
- Immerse yourself in nature: Switch off from reality and dive into your natural surroundings! Swimming outside can do you the power of good, from the fresh air experience and Vitamin D exposure to enjoying the freedom of no barriers. As swimming brand Zoggs describes, ‘you are not restricted to a pool lane and not swimming in a confined space.’
- Increases endurance: Open-water swimming will boost your endurance due to the colder temperatures and tougher conditions compared to a normal pool. As our expert swimming coach Paul Mackenzie puts it: ‘It might only be that you are in the water for a few minutes, but once out, changed and wrapped up warm, you will be surprised how rewarding the feeling of success from overcoming the challenge can be’.
- It’s fun! Swimming outdoors is a great activity for a bit of fun for all ages and abilities.
What to wear and the equipment you need for open-water swimming
Having the right kit for open-water swimming is essential. In order to have a safe, comfortable and successful swim, consider the following pieces of equipment:
- Wetsuit: As well as keeping your body warm, a wetsuit will also provide added buoyancy in the water, helping you to keep safe and swim faster. It’s important to have a good-fitting wetsuit for optimum performance - check out Swim England’s handy guide on how to choose a wetsuit. Zone3 offers a great variety of wetsuits for open-water swimming, including this men’s agile wetsuit and the women’s agile wetsuit. Both provide warmth and support for your swimming journeys, with buoyancy panels and complete flexibility for streamlined movement. Boots, gloves and socks are also options for added warmth.
- Swimming cap: Choose a brightly coloured swimming cap to increase your visibility while swimming outside and keep your head warm too! We like Zone3’s silicone swim cap, easy to put on with its universal fit and made from a durable material to last in all conditions (and available in neon yellow, orange, or red for guaranteed visibility). Check out our full guide on the best swimming caps for more recommended options.
- Goggles: Protect your eyes throughout your swim with a good pair of swimming goggles. They’ll keep water out of your eyes, protect from any UV rays and provide you with crystal-clear vision while in the water. Winline’s polarised swimming goggles are designed with an adjustable silicone strap for the ultimate comfort and personalised fit, providing a watertight seal for your eyes. They are ideal for outdoor swimming to block out 99% of the sun’s glare and are fog resistant. Check out our full guide on the best swimming goggles for more of our top picks.
- Tow float: A tow float is a flotation device that will keep you highly visible to other water users, including fellow wild swimmers and boats. Bright, lightweight and simple to use, they easily attach to your waist and can also be used to keep your valuables safe and dry while on the move. Zone3’s hi-vis pink tow float will make it easy to spot in the water while keeping your kit safe and dry. It has little drag and tows behind you for an uninterrupted swim - you’ll barely notice it’s there.
- Post-swim: Getting dry and warm post-swim is essential. Dryrobes provide the perfect solution to cosying up and getting dressed quickly afterwards, lined with super warm fleece material and featuring a waterproof and windproof exterior for the ultimate protection from the elements. Hot drinks are also great to help you warm up - take a tea or hot chocolate in your flask, ready to refuel and rewarm. We love Chilly’s range of insulated travel coffee cups - a high-quality design which can keep your drinks hot for up to four hours. Check out our full shopping guide for the best reusable coffee cups to take lakeside with you.
How to prepare for open-water swimming: top tips from swimming and water safety experts
There are several things to consider when preparing for an open-water swim, whether it’s your first time trying it out or you’re a seasoned wild swimmer taking on an open-water competition. Make sure you are fit, well, and feeling prepared for your swim with these top tips from the experts:
Swim in a public place, preferably with a lifeguard
It’s best to swim in a well-trodden area which is supervised and has first aiders at hand to keep safety a top priority. The RNLI recommends swimming in an area with a lifeguard. If no lifeguard is present, they encourage you to know:
- Where you can enter and exit the water
- Your location – are there any hazards you need to be aware of?
- What the tide and currents are doing – check the tide times before entering the water
- How to spot rip currents, and what to do if you get caught in one.
Safety in numbers
Open-water swimming coach, lifeguard, and founder of cross-country swimming guide Above Below, Paul Mackenzie, emphasises the importance of safety in numbers. He advises to ‘swim with at least one ‘buddy’ even when in a larger group - and keep an eye on each other’.
ZONE3 ambassador and STA L2 Open Water Coach Sue Wilson also advises to not swim alone - ‘this is important for both novices and the more experienced, especially if you are not swimming at a managed venue. There are lots of open water groups up and down the country that can advise on swim routes, entrance and exit points and important things to bear in mind.’
Check the conditions
The RNLI recommends always checking the weather forecast and conditions of the water before starting your swim - ‘if the water is too rough for swimming, don’t get in’. They also emphasise the importance of assessing the air and water temperature - ‘the colder it is, the less time you should spend in the water’. They suggest that ‘if you plan to be out for a long time, get regular updates. And be prepared to change your plans or cancel the trip if the forecast is not safe. If in doubt, don’t go out.’
Acclimatise to the conditions
Acclimatising to the water is super important. The RNLI advises to ‘enter the water slowly and allow time for your body to get used to the cold. Never jump or dive straight in, as this could cause cold water shock.’ A top trick they recommend is splashing the cold water on your neck and face to help yourself acclimate, and ‘try not to hold your breath for an extended time when you first get into the water.’
Our expert open-water swimming coach Paul Mackenzie recommends that you ‘calm and steady your breathing before moving out of your depth or away from the side, bank or beach.’
Have the right swimming gear
The RNLI stresses the importance of a wetsuit to ‘help you stay warm and increase your buoyancy’ and also wearing a brightly coloured swimming cap to ‘help you be seen in the water’. They also suggest taking a mobile phone with you in a waterproof patch to keep up communication at all times and having warm clothes and hot drinks at the ready for after your swim ‘to warm yourself up carefully’.
Know what to do if you get into difficulty
If you don’t properly prepare for your swim, get into the water too quickly, or don’t take the time to acclimatise your body to the conditions properly, open-water swimming can be quite dangerous. If for any reason you do get into difficulty, the RNLI suggests to ‘fight your instinct to swim. Relax and float on your back until you can control your breathing and the shock passes. Then you can call for help.’
Know your limits: Don’t stay in too long
It can be easy to get carried away with open-water swimming, but knowing your limits is super important, especially as a beginner. Our expert open-water swimming coach Paul Mackenzie stresses that ‘there is NO rule for the duration in the water! We are all different shapes and sizes and will get cold at different rates - start with short swims before you think about making them longer.’
Paul also recommends getting out before you feel too cold, as ‘you’ll need considerable energy and dexterity to get undressed, especially if in a tight wetsuit with gloves and socks, get dry and redressed as quickly as possible.’ Sue also agrees that you need to listen to your body - ‘your swim experience is personal to you, and you should not benchmark yourself against anyone else.’
Warm up afterwards
It’s important to warm up properly after your open-water swim - even in the summer months, your body will feel the cold water effects. Our expert open-water swimming coach Paul Mackenzie explains that ‘you will keep getting cold once out of the water, so layers are the answer’. He recommends getting dry quickly, wrapping up in clothing ‘suitable for wearing in a blizzard’, having a warm drink and eating something sweet like cake. He also advises ‘to only drive once fully rewarmed.’
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Cordelia Aspinall is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media, working across brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeForMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. She has previously worked and written for digital publications including Condé Nast Traveller, The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan, and several other lifestyle brands.