6 Things to Know Before Swimming in Open Water

Kelly O'Mara
by Kelly O'Mara
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6 Things to Know Before Swimming in Open Water

The pool is fine and predictable, but whether you’re training for a triathlon or looking to spice up your lap swimming, open water training could be for you. Plus, nearby lakes and the ocean are especially inviting in the summer.

Open water swimming doesn’t have to be daunting. In fact, the sport’s been growing in popularity over the past decade, says Steven Munatones, founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association. There are now thousands of events around the world, and all kinds of people are trying it. “I literally get calls from everyone from NFL players who have never been in a pool to NCAA Division I champions,” says Munatones.

While the conditions in open water are completely different than in a pool, the fundamentals of swimming are the same. Use these six steps to start open water swimming:


Pedro Ordenes, who has broken a number of open water records and leads the Water World Swim group in San Francisco, tells new swimmers to do their research. In a heavily trafficked spot like the San Francisco Bay, you can contact the Coast Guard or the marine police for information about conditions and safety. High tide, low tide and currents are often posted online.

But there are thousands of lakes, oceans and bodies of water — and not all of them have information online. In that case, you need to ask around before you get in the water.

“First, ask a local,” says Munatones. It doesn’t even have to be a swimmer, but someone who is familiar with the water: a fisherman, surfer, paddler. They’ll be able to tell you what the conditions are, where people usually swim and what might be dangerous. Sometimes, those dangers are animals, but more often it’s riptides or bacteria.

The biggest mistake you can make is simply seeing a body of water and jumping in, say both Munatones and Ordenes. That’s how you end up not knowing about dangerous riptides or animals who make their homes nearby. After asking around, spend at least 10–15 minutes observing the conditions when you arrive.


Munatones tells people to go down to the water, talk to a local, walk along the edge, then go out a few feet. Then the next time, swim from one chosen point to another point, parallel to the shoreline. Paralleling the shore gives you a way out if you get in trouble and it gives you something to sight off. You can also walk down to your selected point and then swim back.

“It has to be in stages,” says Ordenes, of getting comfortable in the water. This is particularly true if it’s cold, because you have to acclimate and learn about the conditions you’re swimming in. He’ll have new swimmers do a very simple workout their first time, focusing on breathing, staying relaxed and being patient.



An experienced group can help you navigate those conditions and provide local knowledge. But even if you don’t have a whole group, you should always have at least one swim buddy or a kayaker or paddler with you.

“Never swim by yourself,” says Ordenes. Last year, he rescued someone who had jumped in the water by themselves, didn’t know the conditions and then started to get hypothermic out in the Bay. “If you go the first time and there’s nobody on the beach, definitely don’t get in,” says Munatones.


Going alone is actually not a mistake new swimmers commonly make, because most are too scared of open water to head out on their own.

It’s that fear that’s one of the main challenges. For people who know how to swim, “it’s a bigger mental hurdle than physiological one,” says Munatones. Often, visibility is limited in the water; you can’t see the bottom, and there are no lane lines; there are waves and wind, plus sea animals.

For most of us, that fear causes us to panic, which is when things go badly. That’s why you need to focus on breathing, being calm and taking your time. Munatones advises people who get stuck in a bad eddy or current, to simply make sure they’re breathing and turn onto their back if they need to — instead of freaking out.

Panic can set in especially quick if the water is very cold. Swimmers who aren’t used to the 50-degree temperatures in the San Francisco Bay will feel like they can’t breathe. Using a thermal cap, ear plugs and a wetsuit are all key to being prepared, staying warm and avoiding panic, but you also have to accept that it’ll be different than a pool no matter what you wear.

“It’s a completely different environment,” says Ordenes. The mental-to-physical components are “50-50,” he says.


It may seem counterintuitive, but if you really want to get good at open water swimming, you’ll also want to swim in the pool more.

“No matter what kind of swimming you’re doing, you need the endurance,” says Ordenes.

Munatones advises new swimmers to build up their swimming to a few times per week, and to get stroke instruction from a local masters group or coach. The better swimmer you are, the easier it’ll be in open water.



Why do you want to get better? So you can do something cool!

Most of the people who come to Ordenes’ group are there to prepare for an event: a triathlon, a big race or a unique swimming event — organized swims from Alcatraz are popular in San Francisco. The growth in triathlon and destination swims, like Alcatraz, the Catalina Islands off the Southern California coast or around Brooklyn in New York, is part of what has made open water swimming so popular. It’s hard physically, but it also requires analysis of the conditions and mental fortitude.

“You can never defeat Mother Nature,” says Munatones. You can simply learn to enjoy the swim.

About the Author

Kelly O'Mara
Kelly O'Mara

Kelly is a professional triathlete and reporter outside San Francisco, where she is an on-call producer for the local NPR station. Her works appears regularly in espnW, Competitor, Triathlete and California Magazine. She also co-hosts the podcast, Locker Room Talk, for WiSP: The Global Women’s Sports Network. And she trains. A lot.


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