An insightful introduction for competitive swimmers, families and coaches used to being in the pool.
Open Water Swimming, a new frontier for many, might become a popular pathway toward the new normal.
The global pandemic meant cascading closures. Swimming events seemed to evaporate by the hour. The lack of pool access grew to include beach access, roadblocks and thorough lock-downs.
Looking forward, the return to swimming post-COVID-19 is expected to be a gradual process. Dramatic actions are guaranteed with so many closed pools. When the re-opening unfolds, expect long slog and new regulations. Returning to the water in the new normal is going to travel through various levels. Now is the time for outside-the-box flexibility and extra planning, staging, cooperation, oversight and logistics.
Consider learning more about open water swimming (OWS) in 2020.
Conquering the hazards and challenges of lakes, streams, rivers, bays and oceans with the hope of open water swimming requires new insights, education, experiences and advance planning. Swimming in the pool and swimming in natural outdoor venues offer different applications of your skills and new norms. Open water can be scary and filled with unknowns, as opposed to aquatic centers where fitness and team activities happen in more sanitized settings.
Some among the competitive swim community are sure to transcend beyond the lane lines. They will dare themselves and teammates into open water practices and meets. The 10K open water race has been in the Olympic program since 2008.
Athletes are going to head to OWS and strive to challenge themselves to obtain their ‘fitness fixes.’ Responsible triumphs win over reckless behaviors. Being smart and prepared is always preferable. Different sources of wisdom are needed before venturing to open water. OWS can be an adventure for athletes, coaches and families that is certain to broaden swimming experiences.
Competitive swimmers might evolve more quickly in these looming weeks by acting more like triathletes, paddlers, mudders and Spartan Race competitors. Be quick to forge new bonds, especially among open-water, masters swimmers. Those populations can bring extra perspectives to your tool box for your own open water adventures.
Make meaningful connections among fellow coaches and other competitive swim programs in the weeks to come.
Those connections insert additional faith in your decision-making process as to picking the right times and places for swimming outdoors.
Let’s take the open-water conversations to a new level and share resources at SwimISCA.org websites. Contributors are wanted for a new, open-water mini-course. Then, when ISCA’s East Coast Open Water Championships arrive on October 3-4, 2020, more teams and competitors will be ready for the half-mile, one-mile and 5K races.
Go in together, but stay apart. Keep away from one another in terms of physical distances. Don’t run together in shoulder-to-shoulder styles like herds of buffaloes. Stampede less. Separate more. Stagger throughout the minutes, hours and days. Seek healthy spaces among all the athletes as the virus is super contagious.
As you approach the edge of the water, you may feel like a character in a one-man-(or women) band. Be isolated and with a rugged individualism in those moments in that physical space. Hopefully, your confidence and prior swimming experience provides the wisdom of past practices. Plug along, but be sure to do so along well-traveled pathways, proven and researched before your arrival. Don’t go with a raw cannon-ball attitude that is engulfed in ignorance and mental isolation. Do your homework.
Serve as a back-up for others and organize them for yourself.
Being sensibly surrounded with others while being in the vast outdoors starts far in advance of getting your feet wet. Begin online. Research. Use the internet to seek out those who are excited to share the information they have gathered.. Call. Make new friends. Follow-up with more calls and conversations. Organize with their swim groups and new friends. Ask questions. Write down and review what you know, or think you know to be true. Share with others who can critique and expand with their knowledge and suggestions. Research some more. Join Facebook and Instagram groups and introduce yourself. Post your ideas and plans. Seek and listen to the valuable feedback.
Just as all politics is local, same with OWS.
You may be aware of areas near you that seem good for OWS. However, work through established networks If people don’t go to certain spots, there might be valid reasons. Start by going to and joining with the swimmers that have swam in your area waters in past seasons.
Check with local government sources for conditions such as temperature and currents. Learn where to look to find details, like bacteria counts, and examine other information sites.
Consider Chicago, pre-virus outbreak.
Tens-of-thousands trampled the shores of Lake Michigan on a daily basis during the summer months. The super-majority respectfully admired the lake's expanse and glory at a distance. Few dared to step across the threshold of shoreline and surf to partake in much more than a dip. The lake beckons but frightens many. Most triathletes sharpen their swim skills and get a bulk of their water training while in swim pools. Open water swimming, particularly in Lake Michigan or any similar large body of water, demands a different attitude, prior preparation, and rules.
Start small, as with any new season and come back. Larger challenges will be there when you are ready.
Consider safety measures.
Surf, rip-tides, wind, cold, currents, boats, chop, sharp objects, no visibility underwater, and wildlife are some typical encounters for open water venues. Got hippos, alligators, sharks, water snakes, jellyfish? Prepare for the particular circumstances you might experience. You make your own measured challenges, but you can’t control nature’s elements, like a surprise visit from a Portuguese man o' war. Look it up.
Study your local biology, zoology and weather patterns. Endure the new challenges at practices in open water both as an athlete and a steward of the eco systems. The open water training has a fitness component, but the larger aims are in eliminating the possibility of panic.
Explore how to control your actions and thoughts in this environment, just as you would when planning a challenging day of hiking. Even the strongest swimmer doesn’t go in without a mental plan.
Find an accessible place.
Learn the game of open water swimming where others suggest, based upon your prior research. Distance swimming can be both safe and permissible once you understand these three principles: location, location and location.
Most community beaches prohibit swimmers from going beyond designated swimming areas. Look for posted signs as there are plenty of unguarded beaches these days. While many beach areas are too small for serious marathon swimmers, staying inside the guarded areas is preferable to flip turns in a swim pool, or no pool at all. Training under the watchful eye of a lifeguard does wonders for the worries of your loved ones. Swimming inside the ropes and buoys can suffice as an alternative to pool workouts.
In Lake Michigan, a great swimming beach is in Wilmette at Gillson Park. The beach has a popular swim lane that is one-eighth of a mile in length and 200 feet off shore. As with all the North Shore communities, swimmers who want to swim beyond the specific swimming areas will face the police. Specific ordinances do not allow swimmers outside of non-guarded areas. Police and park rangers patrol in boats too.
Ron, who was once in charge of the Wilmette Beaches, said, "Usually people understand, and they do cooperate. Most of the problems in Wilmette are with people who want to swim, but do not want to pay the beach fee, so they go off of private beaches or a remote part of the park."
To encourage these folk to swim in guarded areas, the Wilmette Beaches had maintained guards to 7:00 p.m. but allowed swimmers to enter the beach free after 5 pm.
One Evanston lifeguard, Julie, said, "We do not allow swimming outside of the boundaries. You'll get hit by boats. With those cigarette boats, you'd be history." Ski boats are notorious for cutting unpredictable paths and missing swimmers due to poor head-on visibility.
Illinois’ renowned swimming hole, Oak Street Beach, Chicago, has two ideal places for open water swimmers, both bordering Oak Street Beach.
To get there, exit Lake Shore Drive either at North Avenue, which is close to the Lincoln Park Zoo, or drive to Olive Park, next to Navy Pier.
- One area stretches about four blocks, (approximately a half-mile) along what is called the "South Ledge." This spans north from the small beach at Olive Park to the bend called Halas Curve on Lake Shore Drive. The turn-around spot is just around the corner from Oak Street Beach.
- The other area, called The North Ledge, is somewhat longer and starts around North Avenue. This swimming straightaway spans southward from a small shelter called the "Chess Pavilion" and a water spot called “Scuba" to the heart of Oak Street.
- A break in the chain occurs between the two areas as swimmers are not permitted to swim off of or onto the south end of Oak Street Beach. Currents and boats make it dangerous to swim around Halas Curve and connect with the other section reaching from Olive Park. Because of this, most swimmers resign themselves to one of the areas and use an out-and-back course.
Chicago's lakefront is free, shallow, without boating traffic, with a majestic view, and most of all, in the past it was guarded. You can swim along the shore using the John Hancock building as a point marker, deal with the chop and still have peace of mind with a lifeguard present.
Newer swimmers would be wise to work their way gradually into the water at the Oak Street Beach. After getting comfortable with the water temperature and waves, head north to the Chess Pavilion. Go with others. Bring your own guard and when possible, warn the local lifeguard of your intentions before starting.
The public guards are not going to walk with you every step of the way. And they might not be too encouraging, but they'll permit swimming if they feel there is no danger. A few regulars frequently swim in these areas. Some are local residents. Connect with them. Ask questions. Get pointers. In the past, regulars to Olive Park would get in each summer when the water temperature climbed to the mid-50s Fahrenheit and swim in armless wet suits and caps. The locals like to frequent the South Ledge and suggest swimming close to the shore, if for nothing else as a reference point. Pool swimmers can get confused without the stripe on the bottom. Swimming near the shore will prevent drifting off into nowhere.
Acclimatization is another key to open water swimming.
One adult swimmer who classifies himself as a “slow-and-steady type” does not fear the water, but he takes precautions to avoid hypothermia. "You have to know your limitations," he cautions.. “This involves some acclimatization."
He also advised, “Getting your body used to cold water is a gentle process and something that can be worked on and improved.”
He once swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge and had to deal with cold water plus tidal currents. The currents are not a problem in Lake Michigan. But he suggests swimmers start when the water is fairly warm and then increase the amount of time and to progress slowly into colder water.
An advantage to the South Ledge in Chicago is the protective break wall. It can reduce the wave action and keep the water a couple degrees warmer than at the deeper North Ledge. Strictly left-sided breathers would be better served starting their swims at the South Ledge at Olive Park.
Winds can warm or cool.
The Guard Captain at Oak Street Beach said winds from the northeast will warm the water, and winds blowing from Chicago out to the lake could cool the lake temperatures by 10 degrees. Wind from the west blows the warmer top water away from the shore, and cool water from the bottom of the Lake returns to the shore. Normal summer lake temperatures range from 56 to 66 degrees. Typically, comfortable swimming temperatures range from 70-75 degrees.
Many of the adults like to swim in a wetsuit for buoyancy purposes.
Wetsuits help to make cold water bearable. Temperature is a mind-over-matter element where practice pays. Decades ago, Dr. James Councilman, world-renowned swim coach at Indiana University, was the one-time record holder as the oldest man to cross the English Channel. One way Doc prepared mentally and physically for the frigid, lengthy swim was by soaking himself in ice water in his bathtub.
If you do fear the cold water, it would help to get in, do a warm up swim of 200 to 500 yards/meters. Get used to the water and air temperatures. After two-or-three minutes you'll be beyond the initial shock, regain your deep breathing and feel much more confident. Then you can concentrate on swimming, not survival. Allow yourself the time at races and practices to get in the water and be present with your gear in order. Get in for warm-ups
One way to acclimate is to stand in knee-or-waist-deep water. Then splash and rub the cold water on your upper body before going all in. The self-administered splashes give your body and brain a more gradual message that there is a change in temperature coming.
Water temperatures can sometimes be warmer than the air. You might have fog. Cold water and colder air still equals cold to humans. That is why it is called a warm-up.
Justin asked: Wondering what top 3 techniques I should focus on?
I can swim ok, but I wouldn't consider myself a swimmer. I feel like I get winded pretty quickly I just signed up for a 5K open-water race (first race since 6th grade).
You asked for three things: Body position, body position, body position.
Well, to be sure, breathing is sorta nice too, but that comes from good body position. And, being relaxed in the water as well, but guess how that happens? Yep. good body position.
Be quick to add fins. Be quick to mix it up with a pulling float, a pull buoy, written as either PB or P in swim-workout-journals.
The transition from the pool to open water requires some adjustments.
The post quarantine transition from zero swimming to open water requires even more adjustments. Start easy and gradual. Do less than what you expect due to the coldness and the hiatus. Spend time orienting yourself to the conditions. It will benefit you in the long run.
Open water is a great reinforcement for bi-lateral breathing.
Open-water swimmers need to have comfort in breathing on both sides.
Bilateral breathing (sometimes called alternate breathing) helps for two reasons: breathing and seeing. Visually, it helps to be able to look in all directions and to be able to spot landmarks and other companions and competitors.
Even in a small chop, it is much easier to breathe by turning the back of your head against the source of the waves. This protects your mouth as you inhale. Often, choking every third or fourth stroke can be resolved by simply turning your head and breathing toward the other direction. Ride with the waves instead of drinking them.
The technique for breathing on your uncomfortable side, or your opposite side relies on timing the breath within the stroke cadence.
- When preparing to breath on the right side, start to turn your head as your left hand passes your left ear during the left arm's above-water recovery. The breathing comes with a whole body motion, beyond a simple head turn.
- Another way is to exhale in a quick blast of bubbles as the right arm enters the water. Then turn your head to the right side to inhale.
- Often when a swimmer breathes late in the stroke, the open mouth is a target for the splash of the arm as it passes and enters the water.
- A front-mounted snorkel gives another option.
The purists frown upon the use of any gear, but you can snorkel past hints of equipment shame in two heart-beats. Feel empowered to use a front-mounted snorkel for practices and training. The snorkel in open water offers comfort and minimizes the sloshing of water in your mouth. Train with whatever equipment you wish.
Building up comfort with the use of snorkel isn’t expected in your first encounter.
Hopefully snorkel swimming is in your repertoire before your first open water swim. Some like using nose clips while swimming with snorkels. The coach of the Division I swimmers at the University of Wisconsin, the Badgers, has the team use nose clips all the time. Nose clips are permitted in competitive swim races and make sense for open water too, especially with snorkel use.
Getting your cap, goggles, nose clip and snorkel on and off can be practiced out of the water.
Gearing up needs to be second nature so your attention can be devoted to elsewhere, like to your mates, the paddling escorts, sharp objects and waves.
When swimming in salt water, keep your mouth closed.
Barely open the lips when inhaling and exhaling so as to not take in the salt water, which can cause an upset stomach.
On your return trips to the open water venues, the issue with gear management can get somewhat complicated.
Gear management while on the pool deck is easy, but it makes for a new learning experience in open water. Water bottles, lap counters, pace clocks and many other creature comforts of the swim pool don’t transition outdoors without new accommodations.
Open water swimming gear can expand to include:
- rescue tubes,
- tethers and
- a host of wearables.
The watches, pulse meters, GPS tracking devices, audio communicators, tempo devices and sophisticated. analysis wearables are a blast.
But, on your first dunk in the open water, you might do much better without the distractions of multiple wearables. Keep it simple. Goggles, swim cap, and perhaps a kickboard for the first trip.
In due time, after you have taken the SwimISCA.org mini-course on open water wearables, you’ll be embracing the tech and loving it.
Head-up swimming is important for sighting in the open water.
This style of stroke was made popular by Tarzan movies, Red Cross lifeguard training and ladies at the pool who want to keep their hair dry. Be thankful that this third group, ballerinas of the pool and the beauty parlors, are not factors in the bike and run portions of the triathlon. Many first-time, open-water swimmers have difficulty getting their hair wet and putting their face in the water.
Get past the yuck factors. Face it. Face-in-swimming is not as rewarding when the bottom vanishes due to bad visibility. The line of the bottom of the pool is gone. At times, seeing past your arms length is impossible when the head goes under.
Head position is an ever-changing condition.
After a long break, it is hard to pop your head up and look for direction every couple strokes. For others, it can be hard to place their faces in the water to stroke as comfortably as they would in the pool. Some choose not to look so frequently and prefer a zig-zag route. It is easy for a wave, small current or splashed stroke to cause a five-degree change in direction. Mind your head position. After that falls into place, then stroke tempo and distance per stroke elements can be pulled into better focus.
Good dry-land habits help greatly.
Triathletes and open water swimmers should build strength and local-muscle-endurance with the neck, upper back and core. Do plenty of planks with the head straight. Then make a plan for shifting head positions within your stroke and swims. Strength in the back and neck helps. The lifting of the head and spotting a distant target at least three times every length of the pool can cause fatigue.
Another brutal cause of fatigue is the sinking of hips and continual moves to a more vertical body position with extra treading of water. Walking when on a long run isn’t great, but treading and going to high-head breastroke in a long swim is terrible.
Rest and recover while keeping a flat-body-position, with your head supported by the water in a float with a gentle stroke. Obviously, hanging on the walls and walking on the bottom isn’t possible. Getting to and clutching upon a kayak or canoe may not be restful nor refreshing. Try a back float instead. Back scull for a few moments. Watch the birds. Catch your breath. Stay level. Side-cramps, foot-cramps and even early stages of panic and fright float away. Gather your confidence and resume your swimming stroke with good relaxed head positions and easy swimming strokes when you’re ready to plug forward.
Breastrokers with the front breathing and arching back have the head-up breathing skill already. But, doing breastroke isn’t going to be fast. So, blend a bit of breastroke breathing into the freestyle mechanics for comfort, positioning and safety. You don’t want to hit debris nor your kayaking escort. Use some breastroke when it makes sense, but still try to get a long, level kick (or two) while going into a head-down-glide between breaths.
One method for head-up sighting is to lift only as high as your eyes for that forward glimpse.
You should not try to combine your breath with the forward look. Wait a half-second, then breathe to the side. If you lift your head forward high enough to get a breath, you'll be exerting too much effort. On a breath to the side, your head can rest in the water. The real reason for not lifting your head overly high is not the muscle strain on the upper back and neck muscles, but the sinking of your legs.
Another key in open-water swimming is to exaggerate your body roll, shoulder lift and arm recovery.
Flowing movements of power enable a swimmer to better handle the waves and save breathing to the side.
Rough water can bump a flat-arm recovery, causing plenty of fatigue and missed strokes. The recovery should be relaxed, but it has to be lifted higher over the waves and chop. This is best accomplished with the shoulders and the rolling of the entire body. A rolling body movement twists in the same path behind the shoulders.
Another trouble spot for those who have been out of the water is the kick.
The legs need to be economized in the early phases with the swimming. Triathletes need to shelter the legs in the swims as they'll be stressed throughout the bike and run to follow. In OWS, the legs serve for balance, body position and bursts of speed. Keep the legs up, loose and flowing directly behind the hips. The best swimmers have a sturdy two-beat kick, coordinated with the twisting, breathing and rolling actions.
Competitive swimmers going for the open water can bring their fins, if they float, and kickboards too.
Save the kicking-phases for the end of practices. Swim for 30-minutes and then kick for 15, in that order.
Some timid open-water visitors might do well to choose to enter on the conditions of only doing a long-kick with a board and snorkel. Having something in the hands offers good comfort. But, don’t wear out those legs and then build up the courage to begin to swim and get hit with a foot or calf cramp. Kick at the conclusion of the practice.
Coach Deb sometimes hits the water with a pull buoy, knowing she can hold it and turn it horizontally to act as a ‘kickboard.’ Then the pull buoy serves double duty without leaving the water.
Another OWS tool is the brightly colored, open-water buoy.
The light-weight, highly visible, safety balloon makes swimmers more visible to water-craft and other swimmers. These buoys attach to a waist belt, and it floats behind the swimmer. It is filled with air and also acts as a dry sack.
Like the open-water buoy, another device that can be worn with a waist belt and dragged behind is a lifeguard rescue tube. Rescue tubes have more bulk, but they are readily available around the pools. And, a rescue tube can act like a bench out in the open water. Grab the tube and sit on it. Do intervals and drag the tube and then you can take rests in the middle of the swims. One rescue tube is big enough to support you and your little sibling -- if you're coordinated.
The older, faster swimmer can swim and drag the tube while the slower sibling and others swim without the drag and keep up. Then stay together and rest together on the tube too. For more aid to the younger and slower, turn to fin use to.
Use of fins can help with foot protection when it is time to make the slow exit from the water.
Some might like to swim with water shoes so as to not step on any sharp objects, fish hooks, glass, cans, etc. The bottom surface of ponds, lakes and rivers are seldom of a hard surface. Rather the muck can easily absorb the full foot and suck off the flip-flop or loose fitting sneaker in one step.
Standing is going to involve a different feel then the cement or hard surface of a pool bottom! Get set for rocky or squishy mud or sand between your toes!
Entry and exit points deserve great scrutiny.
Successful experiences hinge upon the picking of entry-and-exit-points that others have used. Step in with caution and slide quickly to either a floating or treading position as soon as you are deep enough. Here, it is okay to do some breastroke to a deeper spot. Relax for a moment to get your bearings and chat with others or your escorts in canoes or kayaks until you are ready. Paddlers and swimmers need to be patient at the outset.
Getting out when tired, lugging gear and wading through trash, lily pads and murky, oily soup is something you can laugh about after you exit. Exits are part of the fun adventure. Review and grade your entry and dismounts with every open-water swim. Aim for and get to the sweet spot with your feet-first entries and exits. This skill is important for triathletes and open water competitions.
Being calm is one of the most important keys to successful open water swimming. Planning and preparation prevent panic. Acclimation, visualization, positive self-talk and an easy-does-it pace will do wonders for the nervous mentality. Suppose for an instant that you do not like jumping into a cold lake early in the morning. Buck up by preparing yourself mentally for the experience. Visualize. Design a plan on how you will enter. Figure out what you will do to acclimate your brain and body.
Coach Deb finds it useful to have a mantra at the start of her open-water swims. Make up your own mantra for yourself. Hers is, “It is only a sensation.” She tells herself that after the first 50 meters she’ll be entering the “zone.“
Seek a buffer in mass start situations.
Staying calm in the start of a mass swim, as is often the case in a race, means staying wide. The drama of an organized race start in open-water, especially in crowded triathlon fields, is nothing like that of a swimming race with a starter, your own lane and starting block entries. As everyone is swimming hard at the start, there may be kicking and swatting. Stay off to the side while swimming as close to the group as possible.
Age group swimmers always seem to rush to the first row and then often sprint ahead for the first 50 meters. But then, they generally slow down. The others who are older, bigger and stronger and without their glasses, start in the back and come to pass without giving a gentle tap on the foot as they over-take those mid-positions.
Getting in the flow of an OWS race is like the beginning of a big 5K running race. Make the moves when you are able to get out a bit, more to the middle of the course when gaps are plentiful. It is not worthwhile to take the beating at the start. That interrupts the stroke, and you can not get into the swim.
An Iron Man Qualifier offers similar advice. "Some races I could be first out of the water, but it is an advantage to swim right behind somebody else," he said. “I find out who the burner is and draft off of him."
*A good race day suggestion in open water events is to take the path of least resistance. Look every other stroke and try to find the fastest swimmer and draft off his or her wake. In Chicago races, there is a right-hand turn before heading to Olive Park, so wading out as deep as you can for a straight shot is a good strategy. Plan. Scout. Ask and talk with others. Always know the course before the day of the event. Visit the site at the least, and practice there if you can.
Join and build upon the open-water clique in your area.
The best way to make substantial improvements in swimming when the swim pools are closed is to get with experienced, open-water swimmers and coaches in your community. Join their swim clique. Make new friends who have swum around the block in past years. Fantastic opportunities are available in the open water community. Most have an on-your-own philosophy, whereas the group is more of what you make of it.
The open water attitude is less intrusive and forces you to improve because you wish to improve and discover. Leaping from no-swimming and pool-swimming to open-water swimming may not seem like the easiest thing in the world, however, you may find you enjoy it more than initially anticipated. There is a different perspective watching the sun rise or set from the corner of your eye as you turn to catch a breath. With the right settings in your areas, with the right guidance from other experienced adults, and with the right attitude and communication with the coaches, open water could be a new on-ramp for returning to the water.
In city's rivers:
Open water swimming happens in Pittsburgh with the Pittsburgh Triathlon Club members. Here is a group gathering on the dock at Three Rivers Rowing's facility on Washington's Landing on a Friday evening.
Lean upon the water polo players as well.
Water polo players, by their very nature, are out-going, friendly and are presently cross-training in your community as well. Adult water polo players have the swimming power, stamina, and gung-ho courage. Most were competitive swimmers back in the day. There might not be hundreds of water polo players in your area, but when you find one, he or she will be able to point you to another dozen. Masters water polo players can offer a wealth of information. They’re seeking water time and spaces too. Open-water water polo is a thing. They’ve hauled goals and held weekend tournaments in quarry settings. And they know how to get to these hidden swimming holes. Call or email area colleges with water polo programs and try to get plugged into that network as you do your research.
Eco, nature and adventure crowds are the larger clique.
Bike trips along trails, running, paddling, kite flying and all sorts of home-exercise efforts can engage swimmers and families too. If the local waters are not well suited for swimming, and if you have yet to hook up with your own experienced crew, get out and join the paddlers. Network with them first. There is strength in numbers and go get that strength for yourself. The perspectives are great. One day you’ll want to combine forces so swimmers and paddlers are together. Paddlers and swimmers provide support for each other. When you are not in the mood, or need a break, you can paddle and support your fellow swimmers out in the middle of the lake!
Cold water swimming, an closer look from the UK
Open water is a year-round activity, even in the winters. Some enjoy cold water swimming as a way to plunge into life.