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by Elaine K Howley

April 3, 2020

If the COVID-19 pandemic has you headed for open water a little earlier this year, read this first

Beginning in mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down for nearly all of us. The highly contagious upper respiratory illness forced the closure of pools and gyms all around the country and led to the cancellation of a number of meets and open water events this spring and summer.

Many of us rely on swimming to maintain not just good physical health but also to boost mental health. Being forced out of the water for an indefinite period of time such as most of us are can be distressing. This has led many swimmers around the country to begin weighing whether to jump into open water a little earlier than usual or for the first time.

If you’re able to safely access open water, this might be a good option. But bear in mind a few important points of consideration before you go marching off to your local swimming hole.

  1. Ensure that it’s currently legal to visit the location. After the widespread emergence of images and video showing spring breakers partying on beaches in Florida, many municipalities closed these areas to discourage large groups from congregating. Other recreations facilities such as basketball and tennis courts—even outdoor ones—are being closed well beyond Florida. As such, your favorite swim spot may now be off limits, so check with local authorities before you venture out.
  2. Observe social distancing and quarantine guidelines and orders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been very clear that everyone should be staying home as much as possible. In some parts of the country, such practices have become mandatory in an effort to curb transmission of the virus. Many people are being advised to only leave their home for essential business, with trips to the grocery store and pharmacy being among the few reasons to go out. Although it’s important to keep exercising to maintain fitness and to keep from going stir crazy, stop for a second and consider whether an open water swim is really “essential business.” Can you get the same exercise buzz another way in your home or on your property?
  3. Limit group size, but be mindful of swimming safety. This is a tough balance to achieve given the current situation. It’s never smart to swim alone, but right now, staying far away from people who aren’t members of your household is the best way to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Proceed with caution by staying a minimum of 6 feet away from others at all times and limiting group size to as few as possible. As of this writing, the CDC recommends that groups should be limited to 10 or fewer people.
  4. Consider what would happen in an emergency. An emergency while swimming can happen any time—this is why lifeguards are present every time your Masters club works out. Just because there’s a pandemic going on doesn’t prevent other health problems and emergencies from occurring. Before you go venturing out to your local swimming hole, consider whether you’re willing to risk your own health and the health of the emergency responders who would be called on to assist in the event you experience an emergency. Do you really want to put that strain on the local health authorities to come fish you out if you experience hypothermia or have another medical emergency while swimming?
  5. Understand local conditions. This is especially important for those who aren’t accustomed to swimming in cold water and those who are not very experienced with open water swimming. You must know the local conditions where you intend to swim to do so safely. Check the weather before you head out and educate yourself about any relevant local hazards such as currents, tides, or dams that could increase the danger level. A particular area of concern in the early season is water temperature. Although water temperatures in the south may be approaching comfortable levels already, this isn’t the case across the country. In much of the United States, the water is still very cold. Know what you’ll encounter before you head out and come prepared with plenty of warm clothing and warm drinks for after the swim if you’re still planning to try it.
  6. If you must swim, start slow and build up over time. Especially in cold water, it’s really important to not push too far too fast. It might be tempting to jump in and do your normal hour and a half workout, but in water that’s cooler than you’re used to, this can quickly become a dangerous situation. Start out slowly. As the water warms and your confidence grows, you can hang in there a little longer, but always be mindful of the signs and symptoms of hypothermia. These include:
    1. Shivering and teeth chattering
    2. “The Claw”—stiff fingers and hands that won’t relax
    3. Slurred speech
    4. Shallow breathing
    5. Lack of coordination
    6. Weak pulse
    7. Low energy or sleepiness
    8. Confusion and memory loss

Hypothermia can go from a mild issue to a serious health problem quickly, so you must continually monitor yourself at all times. At the first sign of trouble, get out. And realize that you may not be able to properly self-assess when you’re cold. Being too cold can make some people unable to make good decisions for themselves. This is another reason to not swim alone.

Open water swimming is one of life’s greatest joys, and I do hope that you’ll find comfort in the water over the coming weeks and months. But for now, please be extra cautious. Observe social distancing and quarantine rules, take care of yourself, and think about whether that swim is really the most important thing you could be doing right now.


  • Open Water
  • Technique and Training


  • Open Water