Beginner’s Guide to Open Water Swimming: Tips and Gear to Swim Outside

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Open water swimming is one of the most challenging parts of triathlons.
Even the strongest swimmers in the pool have to learn how to swim in open water.

Open Water Swimming

Swimming in open water is what makes triathlons interesting since you’re never swimming in the same water twice.
But, the first few practices and even races in open water can be a bit of a shock.
And, we understand it can be intimidating before you even set foot in open water.

For this piece, we’ve researched and compiled advice for open water training. Along with the suggested gear for open water practices.

Best Practices: Preparing for Open Water Practices

1. Become Confident in Your Strokes

It is absolutely essential you become comfortable and strong in your stroke while in the pool. Most triathletes choose front crawl since it’s the fastest and can be done for long periods of time.

However, it is best to know another stroke. You don’t have to be completely competent, but knowing another stroke is useful.

If you need to recover during practice or a race, which you will in the beginning, you’ll need a back-up stroke. This is often breaststroke or some type of sidestroke. Choose whatever is best for you.

While you’re still practicing in the pool, be sure you can swim for a long time. It’s advised to be sure you can swim further than your race distance. This means no stopping and putting your feet on the ground.

2. Bilateral Breathing

Yes, you need to learn how to breathe on both sides.

It may not feel natural at first, but it will get easier every time you practice. Just focus on your technique and it will feel like second nature before you know it.

Keep in mind, that the open water can be unpredictable and you might be swimming in choppy or wavy water. Or, your race has a mass start and you’re “sardined” at the beginning.

In a realistic race scenario, the waves might be coming from your right so knowing how to breath on your left side would come in handy. And, resorting to your fallback stroke may not be the best option.

3. Sighting

“Sighting” is one of those terms you heard even before you set foot in open water.

It’s because “sighting” is important and can shave seconds off your swim time.

When you’re swimming in open water, there aren’t lane lines and a black stripe at the bottom of the lake.

There are a few exercises you can do in a pool to help prepare you for sighting in open water.

  • Just look up in the pool as if you’re a crocodile looking over the water. Try to be discreet as possible and not let it disrupt your stroke rhythm.
  • Swim in a straight line and close your eyes while you swim. When you open your eyes, observe which way you swerved and adjust your stroke accordingly.

4. Treading

Not all your races will let you run in water or start waist deep in it.

In those types of races, you’ll have to start in deep water and need to tread water for quite some time. Think of the start of the some of the Ironman races.

All this means is you’ll need to practice treading.

Be sure to practice going from treading to swimming especially if you know you’ll have a start in deep water.

5. Turning

Nearly every race you’ll compete in will have turns around a marker buoy.

On average, you’ll have between 4-5 turns depending on the course and the distance you’re racing.

If you have the space and a training partner, you can practice turning in a pool. Ask your training partner if you can swim up and around him or her.

It’s a good substitute since you most likely don’t have buoys at home.

6. Group Swimming

Mass starts and swimming with lots of people can be a bit of shock and even scary the first time you swim in open water.

It makes sense to get used to it in a pool.

Get together with a group of friends and share one lane once or twice a week.

Don’t have a group to swim with?

No problem, just find and join a master’s swim group.

7. Open Water Stroke

Believe or not there is a slight difference between your stroke in the pool and in open water.
While the pool stroke looks more “elegant” and is “pull” based, the open water looks more windmill.

The open water stroke is designed so that you can get through the water faster. And, it does create more splashes since your arms are straighter when they go into the water. The hand enters the water about the same time as your arm.

However, when you look at both strokes under water, they are the same.

The open water stroke as a lower arm recovery which helps you avoid tangling your arms with someone else at the start of the race. And, this technique allows you to get closer to faster swimmers and catch more of their draft. The quicker recovery gives you more chance to get traction in the water and thus pull yourself through the water faster.

Best Practices: Swimming in Open Water

1. Overcoming the Fear and Building Confidence

Before evening entering the water, here are a few tips to help you if you’re scared or need a confidence booster

  • Pinpoint your fear and challenge it head on in a safe space. Anything to simulate your open water fears.
  • Ask a lifeguard or a coast guard about the open water you’ll be practicing in. This will help if you are new to open water and are not sure what to expect.
  • Just get in and swim once you’re ready and take it slow. If you need, swim in shallow water to begin.
  • Visualize the course and remind yourself of all the skills you do know.

2. Keep Your Stroke Tight

Don’t let all your hard work in the pool go out the window!

This can easily happen when you’re in open water and swimming in a tightly packed wave.

Keep your form and you’ll be able to power through the swim.

Just remember to keep your head down when you’re not spotting. It will help maintain your good swimming posture.

Don’t forget to lift your arms out of the water. It will help propel you forward and keep the windmill form we discussed in the previous section.

And, finally, don’t forget to kick. You won’t need to kick a lot especially if you have a wetsuit on but it definitely helps you find a nice “groove” in the water.

3. Find Your “Groove”

Best Swim Buoy for Open Water

You worked so hard in the pool to develop your own “groove” or rhythm in the pool. It’s when you feel the most relaxed and strong in the water.

When you get into open water, this often goes out of the window because you’re dealing with other elements.

To find your groove in open water, just relax and know everyone else also has to deal with this. Concentrate on your breathing and taking consistent, deep breaths in and out. If your breathing is relaxed then the rest will follow.

4. Over train in the Pool

If your race is 750 meters then get comfortable swimming 1,000 meters without stopping. Don’t worry about the time just focus on feeling strong in the water. Everything else will fall into place.

And, in races you’ll rarely swim the prescribed distance due to sighting issues and you tend to swim crookedly.

On a mental stand point, it might be easier knowing you can swim more than the race distance as you line up at the start line.

5. Know Your Turns

In a race situation, it’s best to know which buoys to turn around and which ones you can us a guide markers.

Triathlon Swim Course

For newer triathletes, look at the course maps and even check out the race revenue the day before the event. If you can, attend the athlete meeting with the race director the day before the event.

The race director will go over the entire course and will be able to answer any questions you have. It will help keep you calm for your first few races.

6. Acclimatize to the Water

Before you jump into the water, take a few minutes to splash around in the water or at least dip your toes in.

The water in a lake is often colder than what you’re used to in a pool and it can be a shock to your body. To make things easier for yourself just take it slow getting in the first few times.

This means putting your feet in the water, splashing water on your arms or face.

7. Start with Small Bites

Set goals that are easy for you to achieve, which will help build up your confidence and comfort in the water.

This may mean swimming in the shallow end of the lake or river before going out a little further.

If you’re already comfortable in the water, then it’s best to start with a shorter distance before trying to swim a mile.

8. Don’t Run Out of the Water

If you’re NOT racing, don’t be in a hurry to get out of the water. You might be dizzier getting out of a lake than a pool because the cold water impacts your ear canal differently than chlorinated water.

Be patient with yourself and get out slowly. As you become accustomed to it, then you can practice getting out faster.

In race situations, just swim until you’re certain you can reach the bottom and then get out of the water as fast as you can.

9. Train with a Buddy

It is easier to train with someone since it keeps you accountable and it’s more fun.

And, for practical reasons, it is safer to practice open water swimming with at least one other person. They don’t need to be in the water. Having someone on land or kayak is great. And, it can help keep you calm if you’re nervous about swimming in open water.

10. Wait and Stay on the Sides

If you’re nervous about mass starts or are a weaker swimmer, it’s best to stay in the back or the sides of the pack.

You’ll have more space and it will make spotting easier without all the arms and legs flailing in front of you.

11. Flip on Your Back in a Moment of Panic

Many beginners panic in open water because they can’t breathe normally during a start or swimming in a group.

Open Water Safety Gear

If this does happen, just flip on your back for as long as you need to.

12. Safety Equipment

I’ll discuss the specifics in the next section.

But you need safety equipment just as you’d need for biking.

Wear a bright colored swim cap and a swim buoy so you can be seen by boaters, lifeguards, and other people on land.

Remember, you’ll sometimes be swimming in murky water in a black wetsuit, you’ll need to stay as visible as possible in open water.

13. It Gets Easier

Remember, every triathlete had to get used to swimming in open water.

And, the more you practice the easier it gets. Just don’t let your fears or other triathletes intimidate you. In fact, if you see a strong open water swimmer, ask him or her questions!

Once you find open water swimming easy, you’ll actually be surprised how fun it is!

Best Practices: Essential Open Water Equipment and Buyer’s Guide

For some of the items below I’ll provide a short buyers guide and for others I won’t.

Fortunately, we have handful of articles with more detailed information, which includes a buyer’s guide, for the products listed below. You can check out our main guide page and search for the specific item you need.

1. Swim Goggles

You’ll need a good pair of swim goggles for swimming in the open water.

Best Open Water and Triathlon Goggles

Honestly, you can use the goggles you use in the pool for open water, to start.

However, you’ll want to look into goggles that were made to swim in open water.

Often, goggles for the pool have a narrow field of vision and depending on which ones you get have a dark tint.

When you’re shopping for open water goggles, look for ones that have a wide field of vision. This will help you see better in the water and help you sight buoys and see turns.

Additionally, open water goggles have different tints and can make all the difference when you’re swimming in a race. You’ll need a pair that will give you clear vision but will also block out some the sun light. It’s best to look for ones that will have a long life and not fog up easily.

In our swim goggles buyer’s guide and product review, we talked about a pair that has adaptive lenses.

2. Swim Cap/Neoprene Swim Cap

You’ll need a swim cap to keep your hair clean and reduce the drag in the water. Very similar reasons to use a swim cap in a pool.

Best Neoprene Swim Caps

However, in open water, you need to be seen so a brightly colored swim cap would be ideal. Remember, you need to be seen by boaters, kayakers, paddle boarders, and the lifeguards on the shore.

If you’re swimming in chilly bodies of water or are swimming in the early spring or late fall, you’ll need a neoprene swim cap.

This one is different from a latex swim cap since it helps insulate your head and keeps you warm in the water.

Look for swim caps, that will fit your head snug but not too tight. The best ones are made from neoprene and will last a long time if you take care of it.

You can find both latex and neoprene swim caps from online retailers. It might be harder to find neoprene swim caps in a store, but it’s worth looking into.

3. Wetsuit

A wetsuit is essential in colder waters and especially if you’re still working on your stroke.

The wetsuit is made from neoprene and buoyant material and is supposed to feel tight but not restrictive.

De Soto T1 Wetsuit Review

The wetsuit legs are made from buoyant material so it helps keep your legs from dragging in the water. And, you’ll be able to maintain the perfect position in the water. This will help beginner swimmers shave seconds off their swim time.

For more advanced swimmers, a wetsuit saves your energy for other legs of the race. Instead of your body using energy to keep you warm in the water, the wetsuit takes care of that.

Our buyer’s guide and product review outlines what to look for when you’re buying a wetsuit. You won’t need to buy the top wetsuit for your first season of triathlons. An entry-level suit will serve you well until you’re ready to upgrade.

4. Sunscreen

Even if you’re earing a full-body wetsuit you still need to put on sun screen.

Remember, the water reflects light very harshly and you can end up with a burned face from a long swim.

Look for sunscreens that are made for athletes, sweat proof, and water resistant or waterproof. If you have sensitive skin look for hypo-allergenic sunscreens.

Just be sure you put a coat of sun screen on well before you get into the water.

Another option available is zinc oxide, which ids a physical block against the sun’s harmful rays. However, it will make your skin look chalky white.

5. Open Water Swimming Buoy

An open water swimming buoy is the equivalent of a bike helmet.

It keeps you safe and visible when you’re in the open water.

Swim Bouy Safety

This is especially important if you’re swimming solo, although not recommended.

Open water swimming buoys are made in super bright colors and are very light. It won’t create drag in the water as it tows behind you.

This helps boaters, kayakers, lifeguards, and other swimmers see where you are.

And in the case of becoming tired or getting a cramp, you can hang onto the buoy until you are ready to keep swimming.

6. Waterproof GPS Watch

If you have a sports watch, then most likely it will have water capabilities.

You’ll need to look for a sports watch that is waterproof and supports a training app.

And, unlike swimming in a pool, the open water doesn’t have a prescribed course unless you’re racing.

best triathlon watch

Look for a watch that supports a training app that has open water tracking capabilities.

This way you can track how far you’ve swam in the water and other metrics if you need to keep records of it.

We have an article that provides a buyer’s guide and product review of the top sports watches on the market right now. And, we also update the article as new products come out and new technologies are developed.

Like wetsuits, you won’t need to “break the bank” if you decide to swim with a waterproof GPS watch.

7. Nutrition

If you are planning to swim for a long time (more than 45 minutes) it’s highly advised to pack some type of snack.

Best Electrolyte Replacements

Swimming in open water burns a lot of calories and can tire you out quickly especially if you’re in choppy or unpredictable water.

It’s suggested to bring a gel with you to keep your blood sugar and energy levels even as you complete your swim. Remember to time the consumption correctly and have a place to keep the trash while you’re in the water.

If your stomach doesn’t like energy gels or electrolyte replacements, then consider packing an energy bar, sports drink, and definitely some type of nutritious snack for after your swim.

If you’re not sure about what energy gel to take or how to take it, please check out our guides to both energy gels and electrolyte replacements.

And, best thing to do is practice using energy gels in the pool before you take them into open water with you.

8. Anti-Chafe

Unfortunately, you can chafe in a wetsuit which can put a damper on your fun and even performance during a race.

Anti Chafing Triathlete

Chafing can happen if your skin is super sensitive or the wetsuit’s seam is causing int.

What can be done about this?

Lube up your skin with anti-chafing formulas such as BodyGlide or even baby oil works as well.

BodyGlide comes in what looks like a deodorant stick but it was created to act as anti-chafe and ant-blister lube or balm.

All you need to do is rub it over spots that are more prone to chafing such as your neck, arms, ankles, etc. And, then put on your wetsuit.

If your skin is sensitive to the ingredients in baby oil or BodyGlide, consider buying a base layer or rashguard under your wetsuit.

The rashguard is very thin and doesn’t add warmth. All it does is prevent rash and irritation from the wetsuit in addition to sunburn.

A base layer, on the other hand, does add a little bit of warmth in addition to preventing chafing and irritation.

There’s no right answer between the three options discussed here. It’s comes down to personal choice. I’d advise you to talk to other triathletes who also deal with chafing.

9. Neoprene Socks and Gloves

If you swim and race in chilly waters, your feet, toes, and fingers are the first to feel and suffer from the cold water.

Open Water Swimming Neoprene Gloves

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t swim in chilly waters or practice swimming in a lake in the early spring or late fall.

Neoprene swim socks and gloves are made for open water swimmers and they keep your toes and fingers warm and prevent most water from coming in.

Not everyone needs neoprene socks and gloves unless you swim and race regularly in cold to chilly waters.

If you do open water practices in the early spring or late fall, this also might be a good accessory to have. You can get extra practice in open water even before the “official” season starts.


We hope this article helps you reach your open-water swimming goals or breaks whatever fears you have about it.

We are always updating our articles with new products, technologies and advices. Please let us know what we might have missed.

Photo of author

Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach. Since graduating college, Ryan has coached over sixty triathletes, runners, cyclists, and swimmers. He focuses on helping them select appropriate goals and guiding them towards achieving them.

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