Thursday, January 2, 2014

Open Water 101

Open Water 101

By Josh Green

Have you ever thought about trying open water swimming?  Maybe you are getting burned out swimming laps in the pool and are looking for something new.  Maybe you are interested in doing a triathlon.  Maybe you watched Diana Nyad’s incredible swim from Cuba to Florida or the 10K open water swim at the Olympics.  Maybe you’ve driven by one of Utah’s many lakes and reservoirs and thought about going for a swim.  Whatever the reason, there are a few things you should know before you jump in.

Pool vs Open Water
While open water swimming is still swimming, it is quite different from pool swimming.  It is very similar to running on a track and trail running.  One is a very controlled environment and the other is more dynamic and challenging.  In open water, the water is cooler, there are no lane lines or walls, and the water is often not as clear as the water at your pool.  On top of that, there are boats, changing weather conditions, and aquatic life to deal with.  While these things can cause some people to panic, for others they are an exhilarating challenge.

The first thing to consider before taking the plunge is safety.  Because of the added challenges of cooler water and changing weather, you need to be prepared.  The most important rule of open water swimming is to never swim alone.  Whether they are in a kayak next to you, swimming at your side, or on the shore, you need to have someone with you in case (heaven forbid) something happens.  Always let someone know where you are going and how long you expect to be gone.

You also need to make yourself visible by wearing a bright colored cap or by using one of the many safety devices available such as the SaferSwimmer and Swimmer Buddy.  Boats and fishermen are not looking for swimmers.  While there are boating laws in place to protect swimmers, it is your responsibility to be aware of your surroundings at all times. 

Always check the water temperature and weather forecast before swimming outside.  If it’s going to be windy or there will be lightning, you are better off going for a swim at the pool.

When choosing a place to train, try to choose a place designated for swimming.  Most lakes and reservoirs have “wakeless” areas where boats have to maintain a slow speed.  Try to choose a course parallel to the shore rather than swimming straight out into the middle of the lake.  The Salt Lake Open Water (SLOW) club has a good list of places to swim on their website (

Swimming Straight
Since there are no lane lines and no black lines on the bottom of the lake to follow, it's easy to swim off course.  To swim straight you’ll have to learn to “sight”. “Sighting” simply means lifting your head slightly out of the water to spot a turn buoy, or other landmark, to get your bearings. There are good videos on YouTube that show sighting technique in action. My favorite video shown below, also has other tips to keep you swimming in the right direction.
It’s not uncommon for beginner, and experienced, swimmers to occasionally panic during the swim. If this happens to you, roll onto your back or switch to breaststroke and take deep breaths until you feel ready to continue. The more often you train in open water, the more you will learn and be able to adapt to different conditions and water temperatures, and the more comfortable and less likely to panic you will be.

There is nothing better than watching the sun rise, or set, while swimming in a beautiful mountain reservoir.  Stop every once in a while and just take in your surroundings.  Enjoy the feel of the water and the sun on your back.

If you are interested in giving open water a try, Salt Lake Open Water (SLOW) will be offering a series of open water clinics to help get you started.  These clinics will be free to all current Utah Masters swimmers.  Check the Utah Masters website and the Salt Lake Open Water website for details.