Article image

by Terry Heggy

June 7, 2019

Building confidence to swim outside the box

People raised on beaches love plunging into ponds, lakes, and oceans. But some who have only swum in lap pools can find open water frightening. How can you learn to be comfortable without lane stripes, walls, or the smell of chlorine?

The good news is that open water swimming is a delightfully liberating experience. It features beautiful scenery, an unlimited variety of stimuli for all your senses, and freedom from having your rhythm interrupted by all those annoying turns. Ease into it with a thoughtful approach and you’ll learn to love it!

Gear Up

You don’t need any equipment if your first open water experience involves skinny-dipping with arctic polar bears or Amazonian piranhas, but I’d recommend considering the following:

  • Goggles—Sighting and sunshine might make it worth investing in unscratched tinted goggles.
  • Insulation—Thermal comfort allows you to focus on learning to appreciate the open water experience. Options include wetsuits, neoprene caps, or doubling up on swimsuits or silicon caps. Evaluate borrowed insulating apparel to ensure proper fit and comfort before investing in your own.
  • Dry Land—Getting to the water may require walking on rocks, sand, or mud, so bring appropriate footwear you can leave by the shore. Prepare for post-swim chills with towels, warm clothing, and a thermos full of steaming hot coffee. If no showers are available, bring wet wipes to remove sediment or microorganisms. Bring fuel and hydration as appropriate.
  • Support—Swim with people familiar with the conditions you’ll encounter. Even better, bring a friend with a stand-up paddleboard or kayak with an extra personal flotation device. If swimming with fins or paddles/buoy will build your confidence, use them until you feel comfortable leaving them ashore. Always make safety your top priority.

Do Your Homework

In the Pool

Ask your coach to provide workouts to train for open water. Such practices include sighting and navigation, swimming in crowds, drafting, and splash mitigation (i.e., “cough to exhale”) drills.

In Your Network

Ask around to learn about the best places to ease into open water swimming. Look for calm waters with lifeguards, shallow-water areas close to shore, and organized activities under U.S. Masters Swimming–certified coaches. Research the likelihood of new experiences, such as underwater obstacles (weeds/reeds, sandbars, sunken pirate ships, etc.), critters (fish, jellies, scuba divers), boat wakes and engine fumes, and tides/currents. Visualize how you’ll react calmly to brushing up against something you weren’t expecting: “Oh, that’s just a clump of kelp; I’ll just keep happily swimming along!”

Insert a Toe…

Achieving comfort in a new endeavor is an incremental process. Give yourself permission to take it slowly. Your first day might involve nothing more than walking along the beach to get your feet wet. Know and honor your limits, recognizing that they will recede as you gain experience.

Before entering the water, study the horizon to find landmarks to spot for navigation. Survey every direction to ensure you’ll know what you’re seeing regardless of your orientation in the water. Without lane stripes, you’ll likely find it challenging to hold a straight line until you’ve gained sufficient experience, so be prepared to make frequent course corrections.

Know your safety plan. Issues of little consequence in a pool can become major dangers when you’re far from shore. These include hypothermia, nausea, cramps, general unease, and even hunger. Stay close to land until you’re confident that everyone in your group has achieved a solid comfort level in the water.

Discuss your buddy-system obligations, including signals to notify your fellow swimmers of changes to plans. If a swimmer feels distress and needs to return to shore, a buddy should accompany without question.

The more you swim in nature’s waters, the more you’ll acclimate to cold temperatures, salt water, waves, and longer distances to shore. You’ll soon begin to relish the opportunity to escape the confines of the pool and enjoy your aquatic tourism. Take the plunge, and then congratulate yourself. Celebrate each step (and stroke) you take as you build your open water skill set.


  • Open Water


  • Open Water