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by Erica Slaughter

April 1, 2020

Here are a few things you should think about when trying to change your swimming venue to the open water because of coronavirus-related pool closures

Water, water everywhere,
And all the swimmers could swim.
Water, water everywhere!
And not a pool in which to swim.

When your pool is closed indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be tempting to consider temporarily moving to open water to maintain your exercise regimen. But open water swimming might as well be considered a separate sport from pool swimming; competency in the pool is only the foundation for the set of skills you'll need to respond appropriately and safely to the rapidly changing conditions of an open water environment.

In other words, don’t make the mistake of presuming that because you’re adept at swimming laps in the pool that it’ll be an easy transition to the open water. There are innumerable and unpredictable factors that make open water potentially treacherous.

Part of open water swimming is staying vigilant about everything in your environment—the water conditions, any obstacles along the way, your workout partner’s location, and your own position. You should always be keenly aware of how you’re feeling because it’s easy to become disoriented in water. (Here are some safety guidelines for open water swimming.)

Before you take the plunge, consider the following factors:

Your ability level

Before you even think of working out in a natural body of water, you must evaluate whether your ability level is suitable. How can you tell if it’s too much to risk?

  • You’ve never swum in open water before (splashing around in the surf at the beach doesn't count).
  • When you’re in the pool, you rely heavily on touching the bottom and/or holding on at the wall.
  • You’d have to swim alone.
  • You’re anxious about not being able to see the bottom.
  • Your only choices of natural bodies of water are polluted, frequented by boats and other watercraft, too cold, have dangerous sea life, or are too choppy or wavy.

Your typical training regimen

Swim training in open water is best suited for distance freestyle swimming, not sprinting, drill work, or strokes other than freestyle. Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s beneficial. If you're a sprinter and your objective is to make the best use of this time in order to pick up where you left off, another form of exercise, such as drylands, is probably more advantageous.

Now that most upcoming competitions have been canceled or postponed, you’re probably considering new goals to make the best of your 2020. Try not to let these circumstances derail you from your fitness goals.

How to make open water swimming work for you

Best practices

If it's safe to do so, swim along the shoreline in water that’s as shallow as possible to permit your strokes. Before you begin, consider your avenues of emergency egress if needed.

Mapping distance

A benefit of swimming parallel to a shoreline is that you should be able to make a rough estimation of point-to-point distance by measuring ahead of time with maps online or with apps. Of course, the actual distance you swim will be dependent on how much your course varies with the geographic features of the shoreline, your ability to swim in a straight line, and the currents and waves. You can use a fitness watch to measure how far you swim.

Pace work

When you know the distance of your swim, you should try your best to consistently maintain your desired pace. If you don’t have a fitness watch to provide your workout data, you can still monitor the time you enter and exit the water and calculate your pace.

Open water–specific skills

Learning how to sight to stay on course and aware of conditions is a critical skill. Ideally, this is something you'll have practiced in the safety of a pool before you attempt it in open water. Choose a landmark or buoy and stay on course toward it, sighting every 10 to 20 strokes depending on how smooth and straight your freestyle is.

To sight, extend your hand forward in a stroke and, instead of turning to the side to breathe, raise your face forward and lift only your eyes above the waterline to get a quick glimpse at your landmark to ensure you’re going on as straight of a path as possible.

Distance training

If you’re planning to use open water workouts to train for distance, you’ll probably need to make some adjustments in the sets you’d normally do in the pool to accommodate longer, continuous swims. Concede the point and count by miles rather than trying to calculate yards or meters. All you need to do is maintain your aerobic endurance, and you should be able to resume your distance training in the pool.

Triathlon swim workout

If you hadn’t planned to begin open water training until summer, embrace this as an opportunity to get a jump-start on practicing sighting, navigating, and maybe even drafting if your workout partner is a member of your household—otherwise follow all social distancing guidelines. Follow distance training guidance from your coach to continue improving your aerobic endurance, and you may find that you’re a better swimmer when it’s time to get back in the pool.


  • Open Water


  • Training
  • Open Water