Are you thinking about taking your first steps out of the pool and into the open-water? Here's everything you need to know to make sure your transition goes swimmingly, courtesy of our friends at Zone3.

Cold Water

Think a swimming pool is cold? Well, the lake or river will be significantly colder. On a positive note, the more you swim outside, the more acclimatised you’ll be to the change in temperature; Open-Water (OW) swimming is also known to reduce stress and anxiety alongside the physical benefits of taking to the outdoors. 

For those affected by the cold waters, choosing the right neoprene clothing can also help significantly help with the cold. The good news is Zone3 have you covered with their full range of award-winning wetsuits.

For ultimate warmth, check our Zone3’s Thermal wetsuit, for an entry-level try the Advance wetsuit, voted ‘Best in Class’ from 220tri, is a superb option for beginner swimmers with a thick neoprene layer offering ultimate warmth and comfort. 

Check out the best triathlon wetsuits

Read the wetsuit buying guide


Sharing your swimming space

During a training or leisure swim in the lake, the chances are that there will be loads of space around you and just a handful of people in the lake at the same time – space, quiet, bliss.

However, in a race expect people around you like never before – imagine 20 people in your swim lane at the pool. Again, you can prepare yourself to cope with this. Practice swimming near other people in the pool and the lake. Do this by finding some triathlete friends or join a triathlon swim class, and practice swimming alongside and behind each other. In the lake, you can practice mass starts by treading water within an arm’s reach of each other and then start swimming en masse.

If you have an OW venue near you, see if they do beginner group sessions which will help you practice these types of OW skills. Expect swinging arms, people bumping into each other – it’s all part of the ‘argy-bargy’ of open water. 

If you are new to it, a little slow, a breaststroke swimmer or have any fears at all, position yourself at the start of your race, towards the back of the pack and slightly to the outside edge. You’ll enjoy your swim so much more if you take any pressure off yourself to be in the melee.

Pool Water vs Open Water 

Plasters, hair ties and goodness knows what else you find in the pool – thankfully you won’t get those in the lake, river or sea. What you will find though will be weeds, reeds, swans, ducks and perhaps fish.

You really do not have anything to worry about in Britain – the weeds and reeds might gather on your arms or stick themselves to your hat, but they won’t hurt you. Swans and ducks will generally keep out of your way – but do give them space especially in breeding season. Fish in the UK can get sizeable, but they won’t hurt you.

The chances are that with all your splashing, they’ll swim away fast. You may find fish at Open Water venues are used to all the swimmers and activity so may be more relaxed around swimmers – if you do see them, just try to enjoy the fact that you are swimming in such an amazing natural setting. If you do have a genuine phobia of the wildlife in that environment, then find the time to undertake some 1-2-1 sessions with a good, patient swim coach.

Open Water Swimming Technique (and how it may differ from Pool Swimming)

Front Crawl or not to Crawl?

Ideally, you will be swimming front crawl, as that is faster and more efficient. However, plenty of people combine breaststroke and front crawl when they start out in Open Water. Don’t be afraid in switching to breaststroke if you need to take a break or feel under pressure. However, do get some instruction on making your breaststroke efficient and effective. Remember that swimming breaststroke is more difficult in a wetsuit, so practice this.

Glide vs Swing

In swimming pools swimmers tend to glide, in OW you’re better off with a more choppy reach and pull style of stroke – you’ll deal better with any waves and wake from other swimmers.

Try to keep your elbows high in the recovery phase as well as in the pull.

Kick or not to kick

Practice kicking well in the pool to give your stroke better balance (usually a 4 or 6 beat kick), but in OW you’ll find you’ll naturally drop your kick to a more relaxed rhythm (2 beat kick).

Keep your kick relaxed, toes pointed, and any kick should be consistent. The wetsuit should give you enough buoyancy to allow you to relax your kick compared to the pool.

If you have ‘sinky’ legs in the pool, consider investing in some buoyancy shorts, or a pull buoy to mimic the buoyancy you’ll get from a wetsuit.

No line to follow

Sadly, there is no blue line on a lake floor, so how do you know where you are going? You‘ll need to ‘sight’ the swim buoys or landmarks, such as trees, buildings, race signage, etc. This is a great skill to start practising in the pool.

At the end of your normal session, prop up your kickboard at the end of the lane. Swim as normal away from it and then on the return length, practice three normal strokes and then three sighting strokes.

To sight: lift your head up slightly – looking forward to sight, roll your head to the side and breathe normally before going face back in the water. Practice sighting and breathing to both sides. When you go into the open water, whether racing or sighting, take some time before you enter the water to see the buoys or any landmarks you can use to ‘sight’ off. You’ll be amazed at how hard it can be to see those huge fluorescent orange swim buoys when you’re swimming in a race. Whatever you do, don’t rely on the person in front of you for guidance – for all you know they may be heading in the wrong direction.

With so much to think about when you start open water swimming, it can seem daunting but please don’t over think it. Just find a safe and suitable venue and get out and have some swims. If you need to, use a good coach to help you in your first few sessions.

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About the author

NChamanian's picture
Nassrin Chamanian
Published on: 15 Feb 2022

Pretty OK at bikes. Enthusiasm outstrips ability.