Few things can match going for a swim in the ocean or a lake for its sense of freedom and belonging to something greater.
But without the requisite ability, open water swimming can be a risky business.
Lifeguards naturally warn against the dangers of swimming without understanding local conditions. Have a good understanding, though, and there are deep benefits for mental and physical well-being.
Having the skills to move properly in the water can provide you with the perfect way, as John Cheever put it in his classic short story “The Swimmer,” to “enlarge and celebrate the beauty” of a clear, calm day. But they can also save your life and potentially those of others when they get into difficulty.
So, why are we drawn to the water in the first place? And what can keep us safe and free from injury when we do take the plunge?
Swimming as we know it
Swimming’s storied past dates all the way back to the Stone Age, some 10,000 years ago, with art from the period showing early humans enjoying a relaxing dip. Its status was cemented in Greek myth by Leander’s long swims across the Hellespont for his liaisons with Hero. And references to it can be found throughout ancient history, in the works of Homer as well as in the Bible and Quran.
It wasn’t until the 19th century, though, that swimming as we know it took shape. After Lord Byron followed in Leander’s breaststrokes and famously swam the Hellespont in 1810, competitive swimming took hold. The first races took place in the 1830s in Britain after the opening of the first indoor pools.
A boom in public baths and amateur swimming clubs led to the emergence of new strokes, as swimmers from around the world, including Native Americans and indigenous South Americans, showed off what we now know as front crawl.
And when Capt. Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel in 1875, the same year the heroic Agnes Beckwith swam in the Thames from London Bridge to Greenwich in just over an hour, swimming became a mainstream concern.
By the early 20th century, swimming was a cornerstone of the newly minted Olympics, with major European nations all forming their own federations.
A boom in lidos, or outdoor pools, duly followed, particularly in England and the United States. New York’s classic Astoria pool, used for Olympic trials, opened in 1936.
England’s most iconic art deco pools later fell into disrepair, but in recent years, they have enjoyed something of a renaissance. So has the idea of “wild swimming” – taking a dip in rivers, ponds and lakes for the sheer joy of it all.
Mind and body benefits
Aside from the vital fact that swimming can save your life if you happen to fall into water, it also has tangible benefits for mind and body.
It’s great for cardiovascular fitness and endurance, without the high impact of going for a run. It’s also brilliant for building muscle, boosting heart and lung health, not to mention an ideal way for those looking to lose a few pounds.
Swimming in open water, which tends to be a lot colder than your average heated pool, is also increasingly understood to have mental health benefits, too. The feelgood hormone dopamine is released by simply getting into cold water, ensuring an endorphin rush that can lead to a calming sensation that lasts for hours.
Research by the University of Portsmouth in the UK has started looking at cold water’s anti-inflammatory properties, with a growing body of anecdotal evidence showing that it can dampen the inflammatory responses that cause anxiety and depression. Just being in a so-called “blue environment,” close to the ocean or a body of water, is known to lower stress responses.
Don’t make this mistake
While being able to stay afloat and swim a basic breaststroke can keep you safe, taking the time to learn how to swim properly can lessen the chance of injury and improve your chances of staying safe if you do find yourself in danger.
“Swimming with good technique means that you will be able to move through the water more efficiently, which will increase your speed and confidence in the water,” says Andy White from Ocean Set. White coaches novices and experts in Brighton, UK, with a particular focus on improving their ability in open water.
White says for those looking to go faster and get better at swimming, front crawl is the stroke to work on.
“The most efficient stroke in swimming is front crawl, so having an efficient technique will help conserve energy over longer distances,” he says.
The main thing to focus on first, however, isn’t your arms or legs, but your breathing.
“Probably the most common mistake we see is people holding their breath when their head is underwater. Among other things it means that when you come up to take air you need to exhale and inhale before returning your head to the water. This can put your stroke totally out of rhythm. So the golden rule is when your head is underwater, you should steadily exhale so when you turn to breathe, all you need to do is inhale.”
That goes hand in hand with learning to breathe bilaterally, which means taking a breath on both sides every few strokes.
“It can help to prevent muscle imbalance, which is often one of the leading causes of swimming injury.”
White adds that swimmers should look to build up their endurance over time, rather than attempting long distances with little or no experience.
“Swimming long distances requires the ability to rely on a strong foundation, so getting the basics right is key. A good steady rhythmical stroke is important for longer distances as is the ability to change gears when you need to. Building up your endurance over time will help cement good habits which will pay dividends when you fatigue.”
In the open water
Then there’s the obvious and key issue of safety when it comes to leaving the pool behind and heading into open water.
“An indoor pool can be a balmy 28C (82 degrees F) whereas the sea will often peak at around 18 degrees (64 degrees F) in late summer in the UK. Lakes can be warmer depending on their size and how warm the air has been.
“Then there is the unpredictability of open water: in the sea, factors like wind, currents and tides need to be understood before heading out. Unlike a pool, there are no black lines at the bottom of the sea bed to follow so having the ability to sight and be alive to the environment around you is vital.”
White says it’s best to get local knowledge about conditions and to buddy up with another swimmer, ideally of the same or greater ability, just in case you do get into difficulties. Wear a bright cap so you can be seen by lifeguards or boats and invest in a decent pair of goggles, as well as a tow float to help you stay buoyant and a wetsuit if you feel the cold easily.
And if the worst happens?
“Remember, ‘float to live’,” says White. “Get on your back with wide legs and arms. Raise your hand and shout for help.”
If you happen to find yourself caught in a dangerous rip current, White says it’s essential not to try and swim against it. Rather, swim parallel to the shore and then head back to land once clear of the rip.
“Always swim within your limitations. If you’re not sure about your ability, then err on the side of caution.”
Some great places to put your new knowledge to work
Swimming outdoors is one of life’s great pleasures, although getting started with open-water swimming is probably best reserved for the warmer months. So once you’ve grasped the skills required and found a friend, these are the places to take the plunge.
Loch An Eilein
This small loch in the heart of the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands comes into its own in late summer, when the flies die down and the crowds head home. A small beach at one end offers easy access, while the ruined castle on an island just offshore makes for a great destination for your swim.
The warm waters of the Greek island of Ithaca have long been a mecca for outdoor swimmers. It’s essential to go on a tour or engage the services of a guide, who can take you on the best routes, keep you safe and fill you in on the story of Odysseus and Penelope. Odysseus’ swimming feats are among the most famous in Greek myth. Check out The Big Blue Swim for more.
Islands Brygge, Copenhagen
These classic harbor baths aren’t just the perfect way to ease off the day in Copenhagen. They also provide a safe environment to practice your outdoor swimming skills, as well as get acclimatized for icier swims in winter. Beloved by locals and tourists alike, the water quality is checked daily and is of the highest standard.
Top image: Two women swim in Lake Geneva on April 4, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)