Swimmers Education: Open Water Swimming

Sports Medicine e-Newsletter



UW Health Sports Medicine

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UW Health Sports Medicine offers tips for staying safe when swimming in open waterSummer is here, and trips to the lake and triathlon races have begun.


The time spent swimming laps in the pool is going to pay off when it comes to swimming in open water. However, there are many differences between swimming in a lap pool and swimming in a lake that should be taken into consideration.


Safety First


In a lap pool swimmers often have the back up of a lifeguard, as well as walls, the bottom of the pool, or lane lines to grab onto in the event that the swimmer needs to rest or stop for any reason (i.e. leg cramp, goggles are fogged up).That is not the case in open water. The golden rule of open water swimming is–never swim alone. Ideally, when swimming in a lake, swimmers should have someone in a boat (kayak/canoe) or on a stand up paddleboard to go along side of them. That person is able to keep an eye on the swimmer above water while giving the swimmer something to sight, as well as providing support in the event a rest is needed.




Pool water is clear, calm, and has nice tiled lines and flags to provide guidance to swimmers. In contrast, lakes are dark, sometimes choppy, and much bigger, which makes it easier to swim off course. It’s important while swimming in open water to look up and spot landmarks often. There are no lane lines to use for guidance, making it imperative to look frequently to help with staying on course. As mentioned above, having someone in a boat or on a paddleboard is helpful in keeping swimmers on course as well as safe. Since swimmers often blend in with waves at water level, wearing a bright colored swim cap is important so that swimmers can be seen by boats.


Environment and Ever-changing Weather


Pools provide a confined and regulated environment since the water is calm and at a comfortable temperature. Lake water varies in temperature, choppiness and current. If the water is a little rough it may be a bit more challenging to get a breath as compared to breathing when swimming in a pool. Swimmers are encouraged to practice breathing bilaterally (to the right and left), if possible, to assist with breathing away from the chop of the water when necessary. It is also important to check the weather before venturing out for an open water swim. It may be beautiful and sunny when looking out the window, but weather can change quickly. Swimmers should be prepared for inclement weather and plan accordingly. Being caught in bad weather away from the shore can be dangerous.


Appropriate Dress


For swim and races in a cold lake, swimmers often wear a wetsuit. Swimming in a wetsuit can feel limiting and confining for some people. Tightness around the chest and neck can give the "perceived" feeling of limited breathing, often causing anxiety or panic when in open water. As a result, swimmers need to get used to wearing a wetsuit; in other words, practice – practice – practice. Swimmers are better prepared and more confident by getting accustomed to the sensations that come with wearing a wetsuit. On the positive side, a wetsuit provides additional buoyancy which may make it easier to swim.


Part of the Pack – Swimming in Triathlons


All of the points above come into play when swimming in a triathlon. Lifeguards are available on paddle boards and in boats to provide support or rest, if needed. Visibility during races will be limited not only because of the lake water but also because of all the participants splashing and swimming. At the start of the swim, the water is often choppy and a little rough from all of the swimmers. Additionally, the choppiness may be greater as a result of the weather. Swimmers may suddenly swim or bump into one another or may have someone do the same to them. Remaining calm and knowing that the bumping is not intentional helps to make the swim experience more pleasant.


Another strategy that helps improve a swimmer's experience and performance is knowing how to breathe to both sides. This skill will make it easier for swimmers to sight buoys and/or other landmarks on the course despite which side they may be placed while also adjusting to any waves or other environmental factors.


As you head out into the lakes this summer, enjoy the open water swimming and be safe. Stay calm, confident and know you can always implement some basic safety tools to catch your breath and give yourself a rest. Some of these tools include:

  • Floating on your back
  • Performing side stroke or breaststroke
  • Just treading water

Most importantly, always remember the golden rule–never swim alone. Your safety is the most important aspect of open water swimming.