Open water swimming

Open water swimming is becoming increasingly popular for all ages and abilities. Triathlon and ironman champion Hywel Davies has some top tips before you take the plunge

Travel to most European countries and you will see crystal clear lakes, turquoise seas and miles of clear blue water. Jumping in to cool off is one thing but being serious about open water swimming takes a bit more preparation, especially when looking to try something new a little closer to home.

The large majority of lakes in the England and Wales are privately owned and swimming is usually prohibited but there are more and more places opening up as the popularity of taking the plunge into open water grows. To some there is little appeal to swimming up and down a busy pool lane, avoiding other swimmers, turning every 20 strokes and following a never-ending black line. But taking the swimming outdoors has a much wider benefit.

The obvious one is of good cardiovascular exercise, but open water swimming is developing a following for a whole host of other benefits – improved circulation, growing confidence and self esteem of beating cold and fear, developing a stronger immune system and the social benefits of overcoming the challenge with others.

Before you take the plunge into open water swimming, here are a few things to plan ahead and consider…

  • The swim venue
  • Find out when it is open as some places only allow swimming once a week or at a set time.
  • Are you sharing the water with boats, divers, fishermen or other watersports?
  • What are the safety procedures for any swimmer getting into trouble?
  • What are the swim rules? Do you need a tow float, which direction do you swim, can you swim alone?
  • What are the changing arrangements? Are there showers, etc?
  • What is the entry and exit to the water like? Deep water, walk -n, steps, etc?


Open water means colder water, so a wetsuit is the norm for events, races and recreational swimming. A wetsuit adds buoyancy, streamlining and, most importantly, warmth. A good wetsuit – close fitting, yet allowing arms and legs to move freely, not letting in any water – can picked up for under £100. Other useful equipment is a pair of good-fitting tinted goggles and a bright inflatable bag where you can carry keys, food, water, whistle or anything else in the dry bag section. They are great for being seen and can offer a little rest if needed.


Without the conventional pool’s black line to follow, swimming outdoors can be disorientating. What seems obvious when standing a metre above the water disappears when looking above the surface and although you may think you are heading towards a marker buoy, you could still always be swimming in a circle. The trick here is to look for a landmark such as a tree or building in the distance behind the marker buoy and align them. If it moves one way or another, then you are off course. Rather than look up and spoil your rhythm, you should take a sighting stroke as your arm enters the water rather than trying to lift your head up high. Take three or four sighting strokes in a row and build up a picture of what you see.


Some breathe every other stroke, others three, four, or even more. In a pool, you create a small bow wave to breath into a trough but in open water there can be a little chop so you need to breathe a little higher in the water. As much as possible try to breathe on both sides, as the sun can cause glare when turning towards it and waves or wind coming from one side or other swimmers can create a splash.

Water temperature

There are many hardy folk who swim all year round – open water, no wetsuit, they love the challenge and the buzz of doing it. Most open water venues will range between 14 to 20 degrees in the summer (colder in Scotland). Although a bit fresh when getting in, 14 or 15 degrees is actually quite pleasant for swimming in a wetsuit. Below 12 degrees and it’s a matter of time as to how long you stay in before it gets uncomfortable. That said, wearing two or three hats, booties, neoprene gloves and undershirts can help.

The worst part is getting in and swimming. You may experience a rush of cold to the head, the teeth hurt and the face gets cold but it does pass as soon as you get active. Some people love to dive straight in, others acclimatise slowly. When you reach the point where your hands no longer stay because of the cold, that’s the time to call it a day. Always have warm clothes at hand for when you finish and get out of the wetsuit as quickly as you can.


Open water venues in the Midlands include Stoney Cove, Market Bosworth and Stanton Lakes

You can find more details of where to swim locally at

Hywel Davies is a multi-world record-holder, multiple European and British age group triathlon champion, UK Double Ironman record-holder and five-time UK Ultrafit champion. For a full training plan contact him at twitter @tribe_coaching