What is open water swimming?

What is open water swimming?

What exactly is open water swimming? Quick overview and a bit of history about this social and remarkable swimming discipline.

Do you want to know more about open water swimming? Much like mountain biking or trail running, it is an outdoor sport... And a very popular sport too, as it can be done almost anywhere and by almost anyone! So what does open water swimming actually involve? And why is it called "open water"? What are the benefits of it and who is it suitable for? What is its history? One thing is for sure: the positive and united spirit of this swimming discipline will win you over. Armed with good advice from Giuliana—open water swimmer since 2005 and Nabaiji product manager—I will explain everything to you. 

What is open water swimming?

Open water swimming: the definition

When it comes to "open water swimming", what exactly are we talking about? Firstly, the expression refers to the practice of swimming in a lake, sea or river. Hence the term "open water", as opposed to the swimming pools of more "traditional" swimming.

Furthermore, the expression "open water swimming" also encompasses all competitive swimming events that take place in an open environment. Here again, a distinction is made from pool swimming. These range from recreational events to national and international championships, including the Olympics.

What is the difference between swimming in open water and swimming in a pool?

Physically, you build muscle and cardio-respiratory endurance in the same way in both disciplines. However, there are several differences.

Firstly, the setting! A pool versus a lake, or a river, or the sea… What could possibly be better than the scenery of open water swimming? It is always changing. The same landscape can be different on different days: the colour of the water, the changing tides… All these variations give a unique character to each swim. No chance of getting bored!

In fact, in nature, swimmers have to be particularly adaptable as they have to take various factors into account:
- weather conditions: wind, swell, waves...
- any currents,
- water temperature,
- the geographical features of the location.
In a pool, there is none of this to contend with.

To swim straight in open water you need to find your bearings despite these variations. In a pool, you simply stick to your lane. Outdoors, you learn to stay on course using the highest visual reference point you can find. This way, when you raise your head out of the water to take a breath, you can immediately spot it. This technique, called spotting or sighting, is unique to open water swimming. It's a great thing to practice so that you know where to go when all you have before you is the horizon.

Outside of a pool environment, you can forget about lap times! With the changing elements, your swimming speed varies and so does the time it takes to get from A to B. Less pressure, more pleasure.

What Giuliana has to say: "The swim I do most frequently is Socoa Bay in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France. With variations in the weather, tide... It's different every day!"

What is open water swimming?

Advantages and benefits of open water swimming

According to open water swimmers, the discipline gives you a unique feeling of freedom. And in addition to that, the contact with nature is good for your mental health. It is a stress-relieving sport: it releases endorphins, making you feel like a superhero afterwards!

And then there is the added bonus of travel, of discovering incredible places, in a unique way... in the middle of a natural environment, surrounded by water. Moreover, an increasing number of travel and tourism companies are offering alternative routes, such as in Croatia, for example. A fantastic way to discover a country from a different perspective.

What Giuliana has to say: "For me, my favourite thing is swimming in clear water, especially in the Mediterranean, and being able to see what is going on underneath: fish and aquatic fauna. It's so beautiful!"

What is open water swimming?

Open water swimming, a group sport

Do you like shared experiences, team spirit and having a laugh? Then you will be pleased to hear that this type of swimming creates great social bonds. It is the most collective individual sport there is! Open water swims are generally done in groups. They are an opportunity for swimmers to chat and socialise. A chance to exercise with friends or to make new friends with other swimmers.

Chit-chat while putting on your wetsuit, when taking a break mid-swim to wait for the team to regroup and, of course, once you get out of the water! A spirit of camaraderie and great solidarity between swimmers are core values of open water swimming.

Everybody looks out for everyone else. It's not about setting off as quickly as possible and leaving the others behind. We regularly wait for one another, we make sure that everyone is OK and we support anyone who is having difficulties. After each buoy or rest stop, the group sets off again together. This creates a bond between the members and really makes it feel like a team sport. Enough to make you forget about the physical effort and just remember the fun you had!

What Giuliana has to say: "Each swim is a chance to see a new place with friends, enjoy the experience together and make the most of it."

Who is open water swimming for?

This sport is accessible to everyone. The only requirement is having a body of water close to home: a lake, a watercourse or even a beach open to swimmers. By taking it at your own pace and setting goals suited to your physical abilities, everyone can find their place.

Of course, open water swimming is a particularly good choice for pool swimmers who want to be more in touch with nature or who want to explore a new playground. It is another way to challenge yourself and discover a new sport.

For some, it is about learning to be comfortable in open water, learning a different technique... Lastly, taking up open water swimming is like switching from cycling to mountain biking, from triathlon to swimrun, or from jogging to trail running.

What Giuliana has to say: "As a former pool swimmer, I found myself less and less interested in speed. I was invited to go wild swimming and fell in love with open water swimming. It's freedom!"

Qualities developed by open water swimming

Open water swimming allows you to develop certain qualities, such as:
- adaptability,
- endurance,
- or tactical thinking (especially if your goal is to compete).
In fact, some compare the discipline to cycling in the way that athletes learn to manage their body and their energy.

Plus, to each their own challenge! Challenging yourself is at the heart of open water swimming; the practice allows you to test your limits and set your own goals. For some, it is about going swimming for the first time somewhere where you can't touch the bottom, forgetting any fears you may have of the water, for others it will be about swimming 1 km, 5 km, 10 km and so on. The important thing: challenging yourself and discovering the joys of doing so. This discipline helps develop self-confidence.

What is open water swimming?

What do you need for open water swimming?

The first essential piece of kit: an open water swimming tow float. It keeps you safe in two ways. Firstly, it makes you visible. Its bright colour, generally yellow or red, makes swimmers easy to spot by other water users. And also, if you get tired, it lets you rest so that you can recover and then set off again.

Depending on the temperature of the water and how long you want to stay in there, you might need a wetsuit. It gives swimmers thermal protection. It provides extra buoyancy and therefore helps you swim with greater efficiency.

In water below 15°C, you may also want to wear a neoprene cap, gloves and socks.

What is open water swimming?

Popular and local open water swimming competitions

There are many recreational open water swimming races held all over the world. Almost every town and city with a body of water, sound or river has its own route. These competitions, accessible to all, are very popular and can range from 500 to several thousand participants. The less experienced usually swim in groups: this makes it easier to stay on course.

The aim: have fun! The important thing at this type of event is to be together, have a natter, share the experience, discover a new place and make it to the finish. In short, just the enjoyment of covering the distance.

Competitions are also and above all an excellent excuse to go and swim in some incredible places: at the foot of the Sahara in Morocco, in the natural pools of Australian beaches, or in the heart of Paris in Bassin de la Villette.

What Giuliana has to say: "My very favourite races, which I would recommend, are those held in Spain: friendly atmosphere, tapas and beer on arrival!"

History and records of open water swimming

But where does the practice of open water swimming come from? Although, in our collective subconscious, swimming is something mainly done in a pool, it goes without saying that open water swimming is where swimming originated. Think about it: the majority of our swimming pools were not built until the second half of the 20th century!

So how about we go back in time to get a better understanding?

Open water swimming, a poet's sport

You thought sport and literature weren't a good match? When it comes to open water swimming, it's quite the opposite! It was the poet Lord Byron himself who kicked off the popularity of the practice in 1810. During a tour of Europe, he decided to pay a form of homage to Leander of Greek mythology when staying near the site of this 1st century legend. Quick reminder: the story of a young man who crossed the Hellespont (the Dardanelles in present-day Turkey) every evening to join his beloved.

The British poet swam the same 4 km strait. Buoyed by this success, he repeated the experience in Venice in 1818, swimming for 4 hours and 12 minutes straight. This was the beginning of the craze in Europe, races and swimming clubs sprang up over the course of the 19th century.

Swimming the english channel: the first great feat of open water swimming

Matthew Webb was an English captain. At the age of 27, in August 1875, he set himself a challenge: to set out from Dover and swim across the Channel. He succeeded and made it to Calais 21 hours and 45 minutes later. And so the first open water marathon entered the history books. The press covered the event and contributed to the rise in popularity of the discipline. The public went mad for these "deep water" events in the sea, lakes or rivers. More than 2,000 swimmers have since connected the two shores of the Channel.

What is open water swimming?

The first half of the 20th century when the popularity of open water swimming grew around the world

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, all over the world, towns and cities with estuaries, lakes or sounds came up with their own routes. The ever-increasing number of new events offered a variety of options: ranging from 500 m to 10 km or more. In an effort to harmonise distances and prizes, the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation was created in 1963.

The second half of the 20th century, traditional pool swimming takes over

During this period, the construction of swimming pools increased and, for a time, professional open water swimming was left by the wayside in favour of pool swimming. Despite this shift of the sport to the pool, there remained many open water enthusiasts around the world. Amateur marathon races were also very successful, such as the 12.3 km crossing of Lake Geneva and the Lake Windermere 16 km.

The comeback of open water swimming: the 1990s and the 2000s

Interest in open water swimming started to grow again. The first world championships in the discipline were held in 1991 in Perth, Australia, in the Swan River. It was an independently run event until 2010.

And the Olympic events in all this? Swimming was an open-water event at the end of the 19th century, before swimming pools took over in 1908 as the home of the various swimming disciplines. It was not until 2008, in Beijing, that “open water swimming” became an event in its own right: open water 10 km marathon swimming.

What is open water swimming?

International open water swimming competitions

Open water swimming has been part of the world swimming championships since 2011, joining the other disciplines that take place in a pool: swimming, artistic swimming and diving. These internationals are held every other year, on odd-numbered years. Open water swimming disciplines: 5, 10 and 25 km. Over the shortest distance, there are two types of events: individual and team relay. The 10 km is the qualifier for the following Summer Olympics.

A record-setting discipline

As we have seen, open water swimming is much more than just a sport. Pushing your boundaries is at its heart and this discipline is sometimes headline grabbing. Think back to the exploits of Lord Byron and Matthew Webb.

There is an endless number of goals to be reached, with records from the most classic to the most unusual achieved by experienced athletes:
- Distance record: Lilian Aymeric, 236 km from Mauritius to Reunion in 3 days, in 2016;
Number of consecutive crossings of a strait: Sarah Thomas swam the Channel four times in a row in 2019, totalling 214 km in 54 hours and 10 minutes;
- The oldest marathon swimmer: Toshio Tominaga was 73 years old in 2016 when he braved the powerful currents of the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, covering 38 km in 10 hours;
- - Swimming across the North Pole: Lewis Pugh in 2007, 1 km in 18 min and 50 seconds with a water temperature of -1.8°C;
- Longest distance towing a log: In 2018, Ross Edgley towed a 45 kg log between Martinique and Saint Lucia, swimming 102 km in 20 hours.

It is in this spirit that the "Oceans Seven" endurance challenge was conceived. It consists of swimming the seven most inhospitable straits in the world, those plagued by strong variations in current. The straits are as follows: the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the Moloka’i Channel in Hawaii, the Catalina Channel in the United States and the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland.

What is open water swimming?

Atmosphere, advantages, benefits, history and achievements, now you know everything there is to know about open water swimming. You don't have to break records to take the plunge. So, are you more sea, river or lake? Share with us your first or best open water swimming experiences in the comments.