What are the Benefits of Open Water Swimming?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

All of the benefits of swimming are available to open water swimmers, and some swimmers claim that there are additional benefits to swimming outdoors, especially in cold weather. Swimming in general has significant cardiovascular benefits, and open water swimming often adds different levels of resistance and intensity. Before embarking on an open water swimming program, however, it is advisable to discuss it with a doctor, as there are some risks.

Open-water swimming is included in triathlons.
Open-water swimming is included in triathlons.

Swimming gets the heart rate up and is an excellent form of cardiac conditioning. It also increases muscle strength and provides stamina benefits. Regular swimming, especially over long distances, can make people stronger and more fit. Athletes may use swimming as a cross training tool to develop stamina and vary their exercise routines.

Open swimming may be done at a beach.
Open swimming may be done at a beach.

This form of exercise also does not create impact stress like running, aerobics, and other land-based exercise can. Swimming is easier on the bones and joints and this contributes to the conditioning effects of swimming. Open water swimming, where people swim in outdoor bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and oceans, provides all of these benefits. In addition, open water often has currents that can provide resistance. This will increase muscle strength and tone.

Some people believe that swimming in cold water improves circulation and boosts the immune system.
Some people believe that swimming in cold water improves circulation and boosts the immune system.

Some people refer to open water swimming as cold water swimming, referencing the fact that open bodies of water are not temperature controlled like pools, and thus can become quite cold. Proponents believe that regular swimming in cold water conditions the body, improving circulation and boosting the immune system. Studies conducted on open water swimmers do seem to support the idea that being acclimated to cold water does provide some health benefits.

Open water swimming is part of the triathlon, an athletic event that combines biking, running, and swimming. There are also standalone swimming events. Both are offered in a variety of intensities and lengths for people at different levels of physical fitness. Preparing for a swim meet or triathlon can be a good way to set a fitness goal and get in shape.

People interested in open water swimming should keep a few safety tips in mind. Swimming with a buddy is strongly recommended. In addition, people should not plunge right into cold water swimming. Individuals who are not acclimated to cold water can severely injure themselves; there are risks of heart attack and inhaling water in shock from the cold. It's advisable to start by swimming in temperate waters in warm months and to slowly condition the body for cold. On cold water swims, warm garments should be available to change into immediately after swimming.

Swimming gets the heartrate up and can be a good form of cardio conditioning.
Swimming gets the heartrate up and can be a good form of cardio conditioning.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


After training in 20C water I was more tired than normal. My muscles felt exhausted. Is there any relation to the cold and how your muscles respond?


@pleonasm - You make a good point. Cold water isn't all bad though. I actually prefer swimming in cold water. It's denser, so you float a little bit extra, which can help. And I feel like it motivates me to move in order to keep warm.

But I just prefer to swim outside in natural conditions anyway. I can't stand chlorinated water, as it makes my eyes red and sore for hours afterwards and I can never seem to keep it out of my goggles.

And you get a better swimming workout if you're having to cope for the wind and the movement of the water.

If you're swimming on the beach though, and particularly if you're a novice you need to be very careful of tides and especially riptides. If you get into the wrong spot you can get up miles away from shore in a matter of minutes.


@Iluviaporos - You also really have to take into account how much more difficult it is to swim when the water is cold. This might not make a difference for people swimming in warm waters, but a lot of places hold triathalons during the colder months in order to help people keep their fitness up.

It's a real shock to the body, even if you are wearing a wet suit. And people don't think about the fact that during a race, particularly a race outdoors where you usually have to swim offshore to get to the starting point, you're going to be sitting in the water for a while before you even get to start the race.

And that can be a long time if you are in one of the later starting groups (often races with a lot of people start in groups and then take the running time off depending on when the person started).

Even if you can't manage to swim in the water you will be racing in, you really have to make an effort to swim in suitably cold water to condition yourself.


My sister often competes in triathalons and other races like the Iron Man, which require her to swim in open waters.

She's had to swim in rivers, lakes and the ocean at different times.

She tried to practice in the relevant body of water whenever she could. She told me once that there's no substitute for it. The first race she ever did she practiced in the local swimming pool instead of in the lake where the race took place (or at least a similar lake).

She thought she had developed a really good swimming technique and had a good level of fitness but when it came to the real swim, she realized that swimming outside is a whole other ballgame.

When you have to deal with waves and the cold, that's bad enough, but there are also things you don't think about. My sister said she didn't realize how squeamish she would be about clambering in and out over the mud shore of the lake.

Figuring out how to do all this stuff is not something you want to be doing in the middle of the race.

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