How Open Water Swimming Works

By: Tristin Hopper
Open water swimming offers a different kind of challenge to serious swimmers.

There were easier ways to get to France. On a Sunday in August 1875, a British naval captain named Matthew Webb covered himself in porpoise oil, strode into the frigid off Dover, England, and started swimming. He faced ice-cold temperatures, swift underwater currents and even the occasional stingray, but 22 hours later, Webb strode ashore in France as the first person to swim the English Channel. Upon his return (by boat), an ecstatic British public showered the 27-year-old with accolades, publicity and even his own brand of matches.

Webb, it turns out, was an early practitioner of what we now call open water swimming. Once the sole domain of daredevils, open water swimming's worldwide popularity has been in a recent upswing. Open water swimming is the first leg of any triathlon. In 2008, marathon swimming made its Olympic debut in Beijing. Even English Channel swims have surged in popularity. Ever since Webb's 1875 feat, the channel has been swum by everyone from a 15-year-old girl to a man without arms or legs [sources: Sanders, Allen].


Humans have been swimming in lakes and oceans far longer than they've been swimming in pools, and there remains a certain primal attraction to open water swimming. Any open water swimmer will tell you that the sport is the rebellious cousin of the swimming pool. A far cry from clean, orderly time trials, open water swimming is a messy free-for-all of kicking feet and splashing arms. In the open water, success doesn't depend solely on how fast you can paddle, but on how well you can dodge and outwit your opponents.

And you're not just battling fellow swimmers. Rough weather, currents and cold temperatures all add a different flavor to each race -- giving participants a variability that pool swimmers could only dream of. Open water swimming is also more scenic. You can take to the Hudson River, swimming alongside the New York skyline. You can dive into pristine lakes in Western Canada. Or, at Kona, Hawaii, site of the Ironman World Championships, you can swim among brightly-colored tropical fish and coral reefs [source: Regensburg].

So, if dolphins find their way around using echolocation, how do swimmers navigate in open water? Read on to find out.


Open Water Navigation

Don't get lost out there in the middle of open water.
Thomas Northcut/Lifesize/Thinkstock

Finding your way around an open water course isn't as easy as it looks. Without the guiding hand of painted lines or lane ropes, it can be tricky to keep your bearings using nothing more than the occasional buoy. Once you factor in waves and blinding sunlight, it seems a miracle that open water swimmers ever find the finish line.

Open water swimmers keep themselves on course with "sightings": quick, above-water glances made throughout a swim. Experienced swimmers will typically only need to sight every 10 or 15 strokes, but beginners may need to sight twice as often [source: Berg]. The more you keep head below water, the better your swim time, so keep your sightings low-key. Raise your head only just enough to get your goggles above water.


Buoys can sometimes be tough to spot, especially if they're hidden behind a trough of water -- so it may take you a couple of sightings before it comes into view. Never take too long on a sighting. Spending too much time with your head above water and your eyes darting around the horizon will have a negative effect on your swimming rhythm. If you can't immediately see the buoy, just continue swimming and try again after another 10 or 15 strokes [source: Berg].

If you find yourself off-course, don't panic. Even if you're far from the main pack, fix your course only with slight adjustments. If you get back on course gradually, you'll lose less time than if you immediately scramble back into line.

One of the most foolproof ways to improve your navigation is by learning to swim in a straight line. Many swimmers favor either their left or right side, causing them to swim at a slight angle. The more balanced your stroke, the less you'll need to rely on sightings to maintain your course. To find out the straightness of your stroke, go to a pool and swim a short distance with your eyes closed. If you find that you're veering, work on fixing the imbalance [source: Murphy].

If you get tired of sighting during a race, you might consider giving yourself a break by getting in with a group of other swimmers. They're probably going in the right direction -- but be sure to double-check every now and then.

Keep reading to find out how you can surf your way to a better swim time.


Open Water Drafting

Three people swim in Lake Sammamish, Wash.
Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Ever wonder why bicyclists ride so close together during the Tour de France? It's all about wind resistance. The lead cyclist cuts a path through the air, and by staying close to his rear wheel, the other cyclists avoid having to cut their own "air path." This process is known as "drafting."

The same principle applies to open water swimming. By staying close behind a lead swimmer, you can save effort by "surfing" on the slipstream they've created in the water. It may not sound like much, but skilled drafting can actually reduce your perceived effort by as much as one-fifth [source: Metters].


Start by finding a lead swimmer that's the right size and speed to fit your needs. In the hours before a race, don't shy away from walking up and down the beach to check out other swimmers. Ideally, you'll want somebody that's about the same speed as you. Pick someone who's too fast, and you'll find yourself burned out before the first buoy. Pick someone too slow, and you could find yourself scrambling to find a new lead swimmer mid-race. The bulk of your lead swimmer does matter: The larger the racer is, the larger the "bow wave."

Once you've found your lead swimmer, don't draft directly behind him or her. Not only will you get repeatedly splashed in the face, but you may actually get slowed down in the eddies created by the swimmer's kicking legs. The ideal location is just beside the swimmer, with your head roughly in line with the swimmer's waist. This position also makes it easier to stay with the lead swimmer, since you can keep an eye on him or her with your peripheral vision.

Staying close is crucial in getting a good draft. Ideally, you should stay within 20 inches (50.8 centimeters) of the lead swimmer; close enough to feel the bubbles from their kicks. Just be sure not to get too close: If you're constantly bumping or hitting the lead swimmer, he or she may try to lose you by speeding up or zigzagging around the next buoy. You could also get a swift kick in the ribs. All in all, treat your lead swimmer nicely; otherwise you'll lose out on your free ride.

Near the end of a race, the swimmer will usually start to kick faster. When this happens, move up closer to the swimmer's head to steer clear of the increased eddies. You'll also be able to profit off of the increased bow wave [source: Munatones].

See the next page to find out why chlorine isn't the only difference between pools and open water.


Transitioning From the Pool to Open Water

First, the good news: Lakes and oceans rarely have membership fees. But while you'll avoid the cramped parking lots and smelly changing rooms of a public pool, you'll soon find that to swim in open water is to put yourself at the mercy of the elements.

If you're planning to swim in the ocean, you're probably going to be in for some colder water. In most indoor pools, water is heated to roughly 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius). That's a degree of comfort that you won't even find in the tropical waters of Australia, where water temperatures typically hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).


Donning a wet suit is an obvious remedy to colder water, and it can even improve your swim time by up to 20 percent [source: Bernard]. But with wet suits banned at many open water races, it's a good idea to get yourself acclimated to icier waters. Start by taking a bath in cold water. The water will only be slightly chilled at first, but make it gradually colder by adding ice [source: Bernhardt]. The cold tolerance you develop won't merely be psychological: If you spend enough time in chilly water, you'll find your body adapting, too. Just be sure not to get overzealous. If your skin starts to turn blue or white, it's probably time to get out of the tub.

You'll also want to get used to swimming in crowds. Pool races are tidy affairs with swimmers safely isolated to individual lanes. An open water race, on the other hand, is a chaotic mess of scores of swimmers all splashing into the water at the same time.

If you're a beginner, it's best to avoid starting a race in the middle of the pack. For your first race, hang back for a few seconds to let the competitive swimmers pass, and then choose a swimming route slightly outside of the main pack. Keeping to the outside may add a bit of extra distance to your swim, but with all the energy you saved from avoiding the opening struggle, your overall performance will likely improve [source: Bernard].

In the ocean, you'll likely find yourself struggling against hidden currents. One of them, known as a riptide, is a channel of fast-moving water that goes from the beach to the open ocean. If you get yourself caught in one of these you could find yourself out to sea within minutes. Before that happens, simply swim parallel to the shore until you feel the force of the riptide subsiding [source: iSport]. Currents are also one of the main reasons why you shouldn't go swimming in open water without bringing a friend along. Even if your friend doesn't swim, he or she can keep an eye on you from the shore. That way, if you ever find yourself getting dragged into international waters, you at least know you have a buddy who can phone in a rescue helicopter.

Keep reading to find out how to battle waves and swim like a dolphin.


How to Swim in Rough Conditions

It's windy and raining -- time to postpone the triathlon? Not likely. Sooner or later, you're going to be swimming in rough water. But don't fret: An ability to manage waves can ultimately be an advantage. If you're adept at battling waves, it could be a significant upper hand against less wave-resilient opponents. And, if you ever need to breaststroke away from a shipwreck, a healthy ability to navigate stormy seas could end up being a real lifesaver.

To start, you're going to need to know how to breathe. In the open water, however, an incorrect breathing style could quickly leave you with a stomach full of salt water. That's why open water swimmers need to coordinate breathing with the conditions. If waves are coming in from your right, breathe left. If blinding sun is coming in from your left, breathe right. This might be trickier than you think, especially if you've spent years in the pool breathing to only one side. Before you tackle rough water, go to a pool and swim a few laps while breathing only on the side that you find least comfortable [source: Murphy]. In rough weather, waves, wind and spray also mean that you'll have less of a window in which to pull in air -- so be sure to make every breath count. Right before surfacing, exhale all of the air in your lungs. That way, when you come up for air, you'll be able to breathe in more quickly.


Sometimes, instead of battling the waves, it pays to swim under them. If you get hit by a particularly hard wave, you may be forced to dog paddle to recover, wasting valuable energy in the process. By ducking under those waves like a dolphin, you'll avoid getting jostled often -- and your rough water swims will be much less frustrating [source: Keppeler]. If a wave is relatively small, save energy by simply hopping over it. Or, if it's small enough that you can just crash through it, simply turn sideways and hit the wave with your hip or shoulder. Do it properly, and the wave will simply pass around you.

Warming up before a swim is a good idea in all weather conditions, but it's especially important in rough seas. Get in, splash around, try a test sighting -- anything that will give you a good idea of water temperature, visibility and current. That way, long before the starting gun goes off, you'll be able to adjust your goggles, suit and swim plan as necessary.


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More Great Links

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