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by Katey Collins

June 14, 2021

The benefits of open water swimming are unparalleled

If you’re looking to expand your horizons beyond the pool and are uncomfortable swimming in open water, read on, my friend. With pools being closed during the coronavirus pandemic, many swimmers have ventured to “the other side” and discovered a whole new world. Perhaps you want to give triathlon a chance but fear swimming in a lake, river, or ocean. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to feel more comfortable and safer in open water.

Benefits of Swimming in Open Water

The benefits of open water swimming are unparalleled. Nothing beats an unveiling sunrise while you’re cruising the coastline. The ability to swim endlessly in a rhythm without being interrupted by a wall is incredibly peaceful. Nature, in addition to exercise, has valuable advantages to our physical and mental health.

There is evolving research on the health outcomes of cold water swimming.

“Regular swimming training in cold water seems to have a positive effect on various systems such as the cardiovascular system, endocrine system, immune system, and the psyche,” Beat Knechtle, a professor at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and a triathlete, wrote in a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “However, cold water swimming still poses a significant health risk for inexperienced and untrained swimmers.”

Open water swimming provides a new world of competition and experiences. Open water swims and triathlons (of all distances) deliver a fresh menu of options to mix up your training and competition.

Irrational Fears

People outside the world of swimming might think a swimmer is comfortable swimming anywhere. Some of us have been pampered in our temperature-controlled pools with clean water and no questionable species swimming below us. The predictable black line on the bottom of the pool and pace clock on the deck keeps most anxieties at bay.

Despite being a northern girl surrounded by lakes, I grew quite comfortable with my familiar pool. When I began competing in triathlons as an adult, the reintroduction of lake swimming was anxiety-provoking for sure. The idea of seaweed touching me was enough to make me want to squeal. Thoughts of seeing a fish swimming in the dark murky waters below spiraled into visions of a Muskie taking off my toes.

It can be helpful to examine such fears before entering the water. For example, instead of imagining seaweed as a slimy, grab-and-pull-you-under being, consider it a life-giving organism necessary for the vitality of the lake. Seaweed is just a plant, like the grass you walk on or the vegetables you grow in your garden.

Another way to prepare your mind for open water is being mindful of the way you perceive distance. When you look at the lake, conceptualizing yards or meters goes out the window. I remember the day of a family member’s first triathlon. I helped her prepare for the swim portion. She trained both in the lake and the pool prior to the event. While lined up at the lake swim start, she panicked and told me she had never swum that far before. I reassured her that she had indeed swum that distance, it just looked different because the race was a point to point, and her open water training consisted of shoreline back and forth.

Take time to examine what your fears are and determine if they are rational or not. There certainly are rational concerns to pay attention to, such as boat traffic and visibility. (See the tips below.)

Understand the Source of Your Fear

In order to address any anxiety you have about open water swimming, you must first understand where it stems from. One example is if you’ve experienced something tragic, such as a boating accident. You may attempt an open water swim but end up paralyzed with fear because you have flashbacks of the boating accident. Your body might be tense and your heart rate extremely high, making it difficult to control your breathing as you swim.

The last thing you want is to be in a high-stress state if you’re in the middle of a lake. I know an exceptional competitive swimmer who is terrified of drowning in open water. I also know a strong runner and Cross Fit athlete who became momentarily frozen and unable to move during her lake training. In these situations, the brain’s emergency response system (often referred to as the fight-or-flight response) is taking control. Addressing such fears and concerns before entering the water can keep your stress level down.

Proactive Steps to Stay and Feel Safe in Open Water

  • Always use a swim buoy. There are multiple brands, and they’re relatively inexpensive. This makes you visible to boaters and fellow swimmers.
  • Swim with others familiar with the waters.
  • Do your research and be strategic about when and where you’re swimming.
    • If motorboats are allowed, there may be slow-no-wake hours, which decrease boat traffic and your danger of interaction with a high-speed prop.
    • Know where popular boating areas and launches are and avoid them.
    • If you’re swimming in the ocean or river, be familiar with the currents and tides.
  • Pay attention to the lifeguard recommendations. If the red flag is up on the beach and there’s a strong rip tide, it’s not safe to swim there.
    • Know the air and water temperatures and beware of hyperthermia and hypothermia.
    • Be prepared with your nutrition and hydration.
  • Have a plan of where you’ll be swimming and for how long. Regularly check in with those you’re swimming with.
  • Gradually increase the time you’re in the open water based on your comfort and fitness levels.
  • Swim along the shoreline so you have easy access to get out at any time.
  • Use the services of a coach for optimal support.


  • Open Water


  • Open Water