How to Safely Dive Into Open-Water Swimming

Open-water swimming might seem a bit scary at first, but it comes with a slew of health and wellness benefits that really make a splash.

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Ever harbored dreams of befriending Flounder and gracefully slipping through the waves Ariel-style? Although it's not quite the same as becoming an underwater princess, there is a way to get a taste of the H2O adventure life through open-water swimming.

The activity, which typically takes place in lakes and oceans, is quickly rising in popularity in Europe with 4.3 million people enjoying open-water swimming in the UK alone. While interest in the U.S. has been slower to catch on, the pandemic, and along with it, a need to get outside at a safe distance, has increased awareness and participation. "So many people did whatever they could to try to find a body of water," says Catherine Kase, Olympic open-water swimming head coach for USA Swimming.

Benefits of Open-Water Swimming

Swimming, in general, comes with a ton of physical and mental health benefits, but when it comes to laps in the pool vs. open-water freestyling, the latter has an edge. Research reveals swimming in cold water (roughly 59°F/15°C or below) is associated with reduced inflammation, pain levels, and depressive symptoms, as well as improved blood flow and overall immunity.

Swimming in chilly water is also thought to bolster your stress management skills. Just think: When you're hit by those cold temps, your body's natural fight-or-flight response is triggered. So, the more you swim, the more you learn to deal with the physical impact of stress, therefore making you, theoretically, more prepared to take on life's general stressors.

"For me, it's also a very mindful experience because you're getting into colder water, you really have to focus on the moment and be 100 percent present," says Alice Goodridge, open-water swimmer and founder of Swim Wild, an open-water swimming and coaching group in Scotland, UK.

Good news: There are still plenty of benefits to swimming in warmer waters. You likely know that simply being out in any kind of nature has its mental health benefits, but exercising in and around water or blue spaces has been found to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, significantly improve mood, enhance heart rate variability, and create better perceptions of wellbeing.

The benefits of open-water swimming can be visible on the outside, too — with your skin. "The [cooler] water causes vasoconstriction to the facial blood vessels [and] reduces inflammation in the skin, and therefore helps combat facial redness and environmental oxidative stress," explains Dianni Dai, resident doctor at Rejuv Lab London.

Also, natural water sources, particularly lakes, are often very rich in minerals that can have skin benefits. For example, potassium and sodium help to regulate the water content of skin cells and retain optimal skin hydration, and sulfur has been found to reduce inflammation and calm the skin, reveals Dai. (Just don't forget you still need sunscreen.)

Open-Water Swimming Tips for Beginners

1. Find the perfect swimming spot. Before you jump right in, you'll want to find the right spot. Look for areas that are designated for swimming, monitored by a lifeguard, and free of obstacles, such as lots of debris or large rocks.

Not sure where to begin? "Ask local swim schools or clubs about whether they have any open water events," suggests Kase. Social media (i.e. Facebook groups) is another good way to discover local open-water swimming destinations, along with a trusty Google search. If you're looking to get your feet wet (literally) with others for camaraderie or an added sense of security, check out the U.S. Masters Swimming website for upcoming events or the U.S. Open-Water Swimming page for various location suggestions.

2. Choose your outfit wisely. One of the biggest rookie mistakes with open-water swimming is in your choice of swimwear. In case you couldn't guess, this is not the time for your triangle bikini — quite the opposite. A wetsuit (essentially a full-length jumpsuit made of neoprene) offers the best protection from the elements, especially if the water is cold. It should feel snug and might require a bit of wriggling to get on, but you should still be able to freely move your arms and legs. You don't need to invest a ton in a high-end wetsuit, either. Many water-friendly towns even have shops where you can rent a suit for the day, says Goodridge. (

For your feet, you might consider wearing fins, as these "flippers" can help improve overall body positioning and kicking technique in the water, says Kase. As an alternative, neoprene swim socks offer warmth, extra grip, and protection that going barefoot just doesn't. These look like pull-on bootie slippers but are thin and flexible, so don't feel cumbersome.

3. Don't forget to warm up. Just as you would with any workout, you'll want to properly warm up before an open-water swim to raise your body temperature, and "help reduce the shock of the cold," notes Kase.

Wade into the water slowly, and never jump or dive in. Especially if the water is officially classed as 'cold' (less than 59°F), immersing yourself quickly can have a big impact mentally and physically — no matter how tough you consider yourself. Exposing the body to cold water too fast can cause a slew of issues from a spike in adrenaline and hyperventilation to muscle spasms and, in severe cases, even heart attack; as the blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and the heart is put under significant strain. (As such, if you have an underlying heart-related or circulatory condition, speak with your doctor before attempting open-water swimming.) Easing into the water gives your body temperate (and mind) a chance to acclimate.

4. Consider your stroke choice. Ready to swim? Consider the breaststroke, which is great for newbies, since "you get the full experience and avoid putting your face in, which is sometimes quite nice!" says Goodridge. The good is news is there's is no wrong way to do it, so you can also just go with your stroke of choice, says Kase. "I think that's the beautiful thing about open water — there really are no limits," she adds. (

Whatever stroke you choose, it's important to remember that swimming in open water is very different from easy-going paddles in a pool. "It doesn't come as naturally, and it's not as controlled," says Kase. So opt for a technique where you feel strong.

5. Know your boundaries. Even if you've been swimming for a while, don't venture out too far. "Always swim parallel to the shore," advises Goodridge. "Unless it's an organized event and there are safety kayaks [small one-man kayaks that stay close to swimmers should they need assistance], it's always safer to swim not too far away." And remember that even the strongest swimmer can get cramps, she adds. Cramping can cause sudden and, in some cases, extreme pain — which can be dangerous if you're unable to continue swimming as a result.

Furthermore, it's key to remember that open-water spaces don't have level sea floors — so don't rely on being able to touch the bottom. "It's not uniform, it goes up and down," explains Barber. "One second you can be touching the ground and the next it disappears." (

6. Towel off ASAP. When you're finished, make getting warm a priority. Remove wet gear ASAP and have a thick towel and sweatpants at the ready. "I love having a thermos with hot chocolate or tea when I get out the water," adds Kase. Consider it a sweet way to reward yourself and your body for all that tough work.

Understanding the Risks of Open-Water Swimming

As swimming generally comes with its own risks, it's no surprise that heading out into open water offers additional hazards. Here are a few safety reminders that can help you to make the most of your swimming experience — and maybe even catch the triathlon bug.

1. Know your swimming level. With additional elements of uncertainty (i.e. currents and the climate patterns) you shouldn't venture into open water unless you're a competent swimmer. But what does 'competent' mean? Water Safety USA outlines a number of key components, including knowing your limitations, being able to safely enter water that goes over your head and resurface, and successfully controlling your breathing while swimming for at least 25 yards.

This is also why Barber advises to "have some form of coaching before you do it. It's often the strong swimmers who think they're invincible. People just don't realize how dangerous rivers and lakes — anywhere that isn't lifeguarded or patrolled — can be. You may well be a really good swimmer, but in open water, you can't see the bottom, you feel constrained in a wetsuit, it's cold… all those little things can trigger anxiety."

2. Never swim alone. Whether you go with a friend or local group, ensure you're always accompanied by at least one other person; the environment can change quickly, and you don't want to be caught out alone. If your pal isn't swimming with you, have them stand on the shore where they can clearly see you. (

"I'd say someone on the bank is as good as someone in the water because they can call for help," says Barber. If you're the lookout, "never ever get in and try to help someone who is in trouble. That's the one rule. There's a greater chance they will drown you as they're in a state of panic and will pull you under the water," she says. read up on these six steps to help someone in the water who is in distress from The Royal Life Saving Society before heading out.

3. Be aware of your surroundings. You should always take into account other people on the water — swimmers, kayakers, boaters, paddleboarders, as well as natural elements such as rocks or wildlife, says Goodridge. These can pose a danger to your safety and wellbeing, so avoid busy or hazardous areas entirely if you're unsure, or swim in designated spaces that are cordoned off to boats and other water activities.

There are steps you can take to help you stand out to others in the vicinity, too. "I always wear a brightly colored swimming hat — it's amazing how a person wearing a black neoprene hat and a wetsuit just blends in, particularly in lakes," states Goodridge.

You could also wear a tow float — a little neon bag which blows up and attaches to your waist via a belt. "Essentially you're towing it behind you, it rests just above your legs," Goodridge explains. It won't interfere with your swimming, and you'll "be a lot more visible."

Also, take note of landmarks. With no flags or walls to indicate your distance, look for other markers. "When you're swimming, it's easy to get confused and wonder, 'Where did I start from?'" says Kase. Note anything significant, like a house or lifeguard hut.

4. Check out the water ahead of time. "Any time you enter an open body of water, you want to check the quality and temperature," says Kase, adding that you can ask a lifeguard about these if there is one present. (

Even if it's a hot day, the water temperature is usually cooler in comparison to the air — and you'll especially notice the difference if you're used to taking a dip in heated swimming pools.

There's also no chlorine to kill bacteria in the water, meaning you're at an increased risk of developing a stomach bug, or infection of the eye, ear, skin, or respiratory system. Therefore, you should avoid swimming in open water if you have an open cut or wound, as this acts as easy access for bacteria to potentially enter the body and cause infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a state-by-state water quality review and a list of other factors to consider. Still. there are some spots you should never swim in, such as flood outlets — drains that take overflow water from roads into the lake or river and "will be contaminated with oil, petrol, diesel, that kind of stuff," she Barber.

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