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What is Open Water Swimming?

Open water swimming is an activity in which participants swim outdoors in a body of water, including rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans. The activity includes additional variables that make it more challenging than swimming indoors. There are no walls or lane lines, and the weather can create harsh conditions for swimming.

Open water swimming has increased in popularity in recent years from the U.S. to UK, with over 170 events taking place in open water in Britain and hundreds in America each year.

Popular open water swims around the world include:

Is Open Water Swimming Dangerous?

Jumping in for a swim

Open water swimming can be dangerous even for experienced swimmers. Like any athletic activity, from skiing to running, there are risks. Consider the following variables when swimming in the open water: 

  • Wildlife 

  • Distance

  • Temperature

  • Tide 

  • Waves

  • Safety support

  • Experience and comfort in the open water

Open water swimming should never be done alone. The complex nature of swimming in open water makes swimming difficult and sometimes dangerous without a fellow swimmer or safety support on hand to help if needed. 

Odyssey Open Water Swimming has safety support at every swim. Our support staff monitors the conditions, plans the course, and follows swimmers on kayaks or paddleboards. They can pull swimmers out of the water if necessary. 

To lower the risk of swimming in open water, know your surroundings, always have support, and be confident and competent in the water. 

What Do You Wear for Open Water Swimming?

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For open water swimming, wear the following:

  • Swimsuit or wetsuit

  • Goggles

  • Swim caps (bright colors are recommended)

  • Earplugs 

  • Snacks and/or fluid (for long swims)

Some swimmers may also choose to wear foot fins or “flippers.” While not allowed in triathlons or races, fins can help novice swimmers in the open water.

How Long Does it Take to Swim a Mile in the Open Water?

While top swimmers can swim a mile in a pool in 15 minutes, an experienced swimmer can swim a mile in the open water in approximately 25-30 minutes according to Odyssey swim coach and triathlon coach Megan Tobin. “Experience will determine speed or efficiency,” Megan says. 

Novice yet capable swimmers swim a mile in the open water in 30-45 minutes. 

The conditions of the body of water you are swimming in and your level of experience will play a significant role in the time it takes to swim a mile. Under harsh conditions, a swim can take nearly twice as long as in calm waters.

Do You Need a Wetsuit for Open Water Swimming?

Wearing a wetsuit for open water swimming

Wetsuits are not required. Many swimmers do choose to wear a wetsuit, especially during winter months where the water temperature drops down to the 50s and 60s. For comparison, pools used for competitive swimming are supposed to be between 77 and 82 degrees.

You may not have to purchase a brand new swimsuit in order to wear one while swimming in the open water. Odyssey Open Water Swimming recommends renting wetsuits at Sports Basement for $25 a week or $50 a month. Sports Basement rents Blue Seventy and 2XU suits, which are designed for open water swimming. Surfing wetsuits also work for open water swimming.

Tip: If wearing a wetsuit, we recommend using Glide or a similar lubricant to prevent chafing.

Your First Open Water Swim

Are you ready to give open water swimming a try? Click here to learn what you should know before your first open water swim with Odyssey Open Water Swimming. We recommend joining Odyssey for our weekly Berkeley swims, which are open to swimmers of all skill levels. Swimmers can choose the length of their route, and commonly swim from .5-2 miles.