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Open-Water Swimming in the Time of COVID-19

What to know before jumping in. 

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With many gyms and public pools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, many triathletes have begun asking: “Where is the best open-water swimming near me?” For some, open water has become the only option in order to still complete swim workouts. Though some athletes have been getting creative with swim cords and even kiddy pools, it’s just not the same as the real thing. It makes sense, then, that many are questioning the feasibility of donning a wetsuit and jumping in their local lake, river, or ocean, but before doing so, there are many things to consider—and is it even a good idea to go open-water swimming during the pandemic?

“The answer is a firm ‘maybe,’” said Megan Melgaard, coach at Tower 26 and Safety Commissioner for Swim Across America. “Jumping into the open water for a workout under any circumstance depends on the conditions presented. With our current global pandemic, we now have even more dynamic factors to consider.”

Denis Crean, founder of WaveOne Open Water, agreed: “Safe swimming requires extensive experience and knowledge to plan and execute successful swims. All the benefits of getting a swim workout in cannot outweigh practicing swimming safely and legally.”

In a pool swim, the conditions are controlled, making it a safe and easy place to splash around. That’s not always the case in open water, where variables like wind, currents, temperature, and varied depth present an added challenge. Unlike a pool swim, where all you have to do is stand up or grab a lane rope if things go south, open water places the responsibility of safety solely on the swimmer. Adding to the challenge of open-water swimming is the legality of such an act–even prior to COVID-19, swimmers were banned from entering some bodies of water due to safety or security concerns. Melgaard said swimmers should, at the minimum, research and adhere to local safety regulations, social distancing measures, and other public health requirements when asking the question: “Where is the best open-water swimming near me?”

Where is the Best Open-Water Swimming Near Me?

Don’t assume every body of water is swimmable. Though your local lake, river, or ocean may look just fine on the surface, it may be anything but–undertows, bacterial growth, boat traffic, lack of access for emergency vehicles, and wildlife encounters are just a few of the reasons a body of water would be temporarily or permanently closed. To find appropriate swimming holes, Melgaard recommends contacting your local triathlon club or US Masters Swimming program for recommendations. There are also several Facebook groups dedicated to open-water swimming, where you may find information on local swim areas. Before heading out, make a phone call or send an e-mail to be sure it’s in the clear: “Make sure to check in with local officials regarding what areas are open and safe to swim,” Melgaard said. “Follow their recommendations as your lowest standard. Please go above and beyond minimum recommendations for your own health and safety, as well as for your family and community.”

She added: “Before embarking on a swim in any waterway, you should have knowledge of the full waterscape scope, including water temperature, weather conditions, typical water movements (i.e. tides or currents) and water quality, amongst other safety considerations. Swim in an area that has lifeguard supervision.”

Crean recommends identifying a safe course of 25 to 100 meters to start, which you can use to swim laps until you are experienced to swim further. Walk the shoreline of this course to identify possible obstructions, including hidden rocks and pilings. If possible, talk to experienced swimmers, surfers, watermen, and fishermen to get to their insights on the water you’ll be swimming. Most importantly, have multiple exit strategies. Identify areas where you can get out of the water safely and easily, and note the landmarks you’ll use to sight those exit points. Study those points and commit them to memory: “Remember, exit points look different from the water,” Crean said.

Preparation is Everything

Even if your local beaches and lakes are open for business, don’t go rushing to get a swim workout in just yet. Preparation and practice are the primary components for a safe open-water swim. Here’s how to gear up before hopping in:

1. Get strong.

“If you have not swum in the last few months of isolation, you are not in swimming shape,” Crean said. “It is critical to begin slowly, build up strength, and practice techniques that protect the shoulders and upper back from injury.” Physical preparation for open water should include dryland exercises to strengthen the core and rotator cuff to sufficiently withstand the potential “washing machine” action of open water. This will also allow you to maintain a balanced body position as you propel yourself through the water.

2. Get the gear.

Recon on your swim course should include an inquiry into water temperatures, which will help you assess the need for a wetsuit. Melgaard said if the water temperature is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, hold off until things warm up – even with a wetsuit, cold-water swimming should be reserved for those with a great deal of experience and direct supervision: “It’s possible you may need to set a base closer to 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit based on your experience, skill level, and body type.”

In addition to a properly-fitting wetsuit and goggles, your open-water swim kit should include a brightly colored swim cap, whistle, and swim safety buoy, an accessory worn around the waist which aids in visual detection and may be used as a temporary flotation device. 

3. Use the buddy system.

“Always swim with a buddy,” Melgaard said. “If you don’t have a swim buddy, recruit a friend who can safely keep an eye on you from an open water vessel such as a kayak.” Otherwise, designate an on-shore lookout for a spotter or observer to keep an eye on you. Swimmers and or observers alike should be trained in First Aid and CPR, for the safety of all.

Additionally, don’t forget safety gear for your swim spotters–kayakers should, at the minimum, have a personal flotation device and alert mechanism, such as a cell phone or whistle.

4. Acclimate

While you’re building up your strength on dry land, it’s also a great tie to build up your tolerance for colder water. Crean recommends beginning with a one- or two-minute plunge in cold water, gradually increasing the duration as your body adjusts to the cold. These soaks are also a good time for you to review the warning signs of hypothermia: Loss of feeling in your extremities, claw hands, hyperventilation, tightness in your chest, disorientation, and loss of lucidity and memory. “If you experience any of these, exit the water as soon as they begin,” Crean warned. “Don’t try to push through.”

5. Start with skills.

When it’s time to start logging workouts, don’t go for distance. Shoot for time instead, Crean said: “For your first swim, plan on a duration that was 20 to 25% of the time you swam prior to the pandemic. The time cushion accounts for immobility during the last few months, inefficiency of a rusty stroke technique, inexperience, and keeping a reserve in case of unexpected hazardous conditions.”

Even within that condensed time frame, don’t try to cover as much ground as possible. Instead, focus on the basic building blocks of successful open-water swimming. Breathing with a gentle, rhythmic inhale and calm exhale; breathing on both sides in response to waves; sighting early and often (Crean recommends sighting every six strokes); and developing a feel for the water (fist drills and sculling are excellent drills to practice in open water).

6. If in doubt, don’t go out.

Even if you have your open-water swim date circled in red on the calendar, be flexible. Conditions can change swiftly, and enthusiasm shouldn’t override common sense. “If you have any uncertainty, it’s okay to wait,” Melgaard said. If you have doubts about anything, be it the water conditions or your physical condition, pay attention. “If the water is cold, this might simply be a day to dunk your body and mind the feel of cold water. A short shallow water dunk is a safe lesson that your body remembers, and helps your next swim,” Crean said. “But if you feel like it’s not your day to swim, don’t feel bad about walking away.”