A Champion Triathlete Reveals His Ground Rules for Swimming in the Ocean

Are you ready to hit the waves?

The pandemic has considerably increased the appeal of open water swimming. British swimmers have been creative during the lockdown, replacing the closed city pools with freedom of sea swimming. While the trend isn’t new, we can thank the pandemic for its revival. The same phenomenon occurs worldwide, with many swimmers finding joy in lake and ocean swimming, shine, rain, and even snow. 

The craving for swimming in the ocean boasts about the many mental and physical benefits of the activity. Does wild swimming make you a better and healthier version of yourself? Adventurous swimmers agree that it can become an integral element of one’s fitness and mental health routine. Yet this begs one important question: how to make ocean swimming safe, enjoyable, and approachable. American triathlete and former swimmer Timothy O’Donnell shares his tips for swimming in the ocean. 

How to make ocean swimming safe, enjoyable, and approachable?
Photo by Victor He

Not a controlled environment

As O’Donnell explains, the ocean is nothing like your local swimming pool club. Countless swimmers are only experienced in controlled environments. On the other hand, the ocean is not controlled; you are exposed to marine creatures, rip currents, heat, and shore breaks. Stay within your comfort zone to avoid fatigue and panic. Make sure to stay outside of the wave so you can orientate yourself with landmarks and exit easily.  

O’Donnell suggests performing simple checks before you enter the water. He recommends choosing an area that is overlooked by a lifeguard for your safety. The reason? You want someone around if you get into difficulties. Getting to know the different flag patterns and their meanings is a no-brainer. A word of warning, though: The absence of a flag doesn’t mean the water is safe. 

A red flag is synonymous with highly dangerous swimming conditions. In other words, stay away unless you are a strongly experienced outdoor swimmer. 

A double red flag reveals an absolute danger zone. Do not swim at any cost. 

You also want to avoid a purple flag, which indicates the presence of unwanted sea creatures. If you hear the iconic Jaws music in your mind, you’re on the right path. Sharks, jellyfish, and other unpleasant creatures could tarnish your water experience. 

Rip currents are a common occurrence. They will be marked with a red flag when the area becomes too dangerous. Yet, panic is your worst enemy when caught by the current. O’Donnell advises against swimming straight toward the beach when a rip current has pulled you. Instead, swimmers should swim parallel to the shore until they exit the current loop. To stay on the safe side, try swimming near lifeguards. 

Control your breathing technique

Your swimming technique needs to adapt to the environment. In a pool, you can take steady breaths on one side without losing sight of your direction. In the ocean, you are up against the waves, the currents, and the salty water. You can easily become disoriented and out-of-breath if you don’t prepare before entering the water. Experts recommend visualizing the route so you don’t interrupt breathing patterns when locating the next buoy. Regardless of whether you are swimming in a competition event or for pleasure, erratic breathing will deliver an unpleasant mouthful of salty water. 

Instead, use controlled and slow breathing to remain consistent. Slow exhalations will keep your lungs filled for longer and also prevent outdoor stress and panic. Rather than the unilateral breathing technique preferred in the pool, you want to be breathing on both sides in the ocean. The 3-2-3 breathing strategy is the coach-preferred solution: Breath after three strokes, then two, then back to three. The technique ensures you can keep an overview of what’s around without risking hectic movements. 

The craving for swimming in the ocean boasts about the many mental and physical benefits of the activity.
Photo by Rhett Noonan

Get the appropriate gear

Remember when we said you are swimming in a non-controlled environment? The water temperature will be one of the toughest challenges to face if you don’t use the appropriate gear. O’Donnells recommends investing in a wetsuit, which will be your ally for water below 75 degrees. Coldwater will not only impede your performance, but it will also affect your body. In an attempt to prevent hypothermia, the body uses muscular spasms. The phenomenon is uncontrollable and can lead to high stress when you are ocean swimming. 

Open water tends to reflect the sunlight. Unlike in a pool, you will need your goggles to protect your eyes against direct sunlight. The role of your goggles doesn’t stop here. Indeed, saltwater may be recommended for wounds, but it doesn’t do your eyes any good. The combination of salinity and light can affect your vision. 

Create your own course

Even experienced swimmers can struggle with orientation in open water. The notion of pool lap becomes irrelevant when ocean swimming. That’s precisely why your top priority before entering the water is to create a route of your course. If you join a competition, the route is already pre-defined. Swimmers only need to identify valuable points of reference throughout the course, such as the position of buoys in the water. 

But, if you are swimming for training or workout, you’ve got an infinite number of options. O’Donnell suggests keeping your course simple, such as using a fixed set of references to define your lap. Swimming around the buoy is a favorite as it’s easy to track progress. Alternatively, you can also focus on duration, keeping your open water workouts manageable. O’Donnell warns beginners against over-ambitious exercises, such as trying to swim for 60 minutes or more. 

Ocean swimming is very different from swimming in a pool.
Photo by Cristian Palmer

A unique challenge

Unlike a pool course, swimming in the ocean is a unique cardiovascular challenge:

  • You are working out in colder temperatures
  • Your lungs need to adjust to the environment
  • It is unpredictable
  • Seawater boosts your immune system 
  • There’s the thrill of open water

However, the many health benefits require strict safety tips for swimming in the ocean. You shouldn’t venture into the ocean without a swimming buddy, even as an experienced swimmer. A buddy can seek help if you are in a tough situation. Together, you can also keep track of beach safety notifications, ensuring you can pick the best time and place for a swim. As tempting as it is to stay in the water if it is raining, you shouldn’t stick around in the event of a storm or lightning. 

Finally, a swimmer must understand the many risks of inshore holes, shore breaks, large waves, and rip currents. They can be a cause of injury, stress, and panic for unprepared swimmers.