Swimming is swimming is swimming. It's easy to think this if you've only ever swum in a pool. Aside from slight differences in depth, chemical balances, lane size, etc., there are only marginal variations between pools. Swimming pools are quite accessible throughout the country, but so are bodies of open water. Despite most establishing their love for the sport by swimming in a pool, swimming and racing originated in the open water. To the many who have yet to explore the open water, it may be the solution to the redundant, mindless lengths swimming back and forth in a pool.
Not Just for the Daring
The massively growing sport of triathlon has brought greater interest to open water swimming. Participants' bucket list items are being checked off and bigger, better lists are being created. New lists now include an open water swim race, a triathlon with an ocean swim or even a relay swim across the Catalina Channel in Southern California.
For many, the sense of adventure in swimming without lane lines or walls is the largest draw, but also the most feared aspect. Swimming in the open water allows a degree of exploration, as you have the freedom to dictate your own course, creating a limitless feeling. Beyond this, the opportunity to interact closely with aquatic life can be even more fulfilling. The ocean covers about 71 percent of our Earth's surface and 96 percent of all the planet's water, so it seems almost obligatory for us to explore the wide-open sea.
Degrees of Difficulty
Swimming in the ocean presents many elements of difficulty that a pool bypasses all together. There are countless variables in the open water that demand tactical skills while swimming. The dynamic conditions of the water present challenges, but even greater rewards. Perhaps the most significant of these challenges is the movement of the water itself. From ocean swell and waves to wind, chop and current, open water conditions change by the minute, requiring precise calculations. Learning how to read the tempo of the surf, rip tides and current and reacting to the conditions at hand demands practice and patience. Getting tumbled by a wave or swallowing a gulp of salt water is inevitable, but all of it will add to your repertoire of swimming skills.
Acclimating to cold water temperatures is often overlooked and under appreciated by the inexperienced open water swimmer but can trump your general swim fitness. The shock of cold water can take your breath away and make it difficult to regain without proper training. This cold training is a unique facet of open water swimming necessary for most areas of open water. Many athletes integrate ice baths and cold-water submersion into their training regimens to prepare the body for extended cold.
Each of the variables mentioned above leaves you having to react and navigate on your own to get from point A to B. Without the lane lines that pools have, you're left to your own devices to find your way through the sea. This "sighting" while swimming in open water and factoring the tide/currents with the direction of your course dictates the distance you swim. Investing time in these skills will give you tactical advantages over less experienced open water swimmers.
The Appeal of Racing
Open water races vary in distance but are quite different than pool events. There are races varying from a few hundred yards to marathon distances of more than 20 miles. These options allow you to set ambitious goals, get out of your comfort zone and find new personal thresholds aerobically and mentally. But how do you know what particular race is right for you?
There are plenty of open water races to choose from, potentially overwhelming the process of selecting the most appropriate race for your skills and experience. A great place to start is with a lake or ocean swim race in a warm location. The Cap2K is a wonderfully run event in Austin, Texas, that is beginner-friendly and in a warm, controlled lake downtown. If you have a bit more experience and want to test your endurance, the Flowers International Swims (5K and 10K races) is a gorgeous swim in the Cayman Islands. The natural progression is to next endure a cold and/or rough water swim in a technical body of water. A classic option in this category of open water events is the Catalina Channel Crossing, a more-than-20-mile swim in Southern California. This marathon swim is governed by a local organization with the highest and most reputable of standards akin to that of the English Channel.
Exploring uncharted territory has a distinct appeal for many open water enthusiasts. Conditions change daily, so it can be a lot of fun to experience unexpected water conditions and variables. Traveling around the world to experience the local waters is a profound way to learn about the native wildlife and land, and integrate into its culture. Swimming is a fantastic form of exercise that can span a lifetime, but don't limit your swimming options to a pool. Sign up for a destination race and then celebrate your accomplishment with a relaxing vacation. You earned it.Photo credit: Shaun Sexton
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