The First Time: Things to know for your first open water swim

My first open water swim was very short and very awkward. I asked my best friend to paddle board next to me because I didn’t want to  go alone and because I wanted to have medical assistance that wouldn’t bill my insurance nearby. I survived, and at least I only looked like an idiot in front of my best friend.

Allow me to share some “duh” moments that I experienced that day so that you don’t have to look like an idiot when you’re heading out for your first open water swim:

 Safety first!

If you’ve got a water lovin’ buddy, ask them to come with you! They can swim, paddle board (like my bestie!), kayak, boat, whatever! Knowing you have a trusted buddy there keeping an eye on you can work wonders on your confidence, and those floaty vessels can provide a respite for you when you get tired.

If you’re swimming alone, pick a protected, calm cove with lifeguard on duty. Be sure to say hi to the lifeguard. I like to leave my stuff (towel, car key, clothes) right next to the tower and ask how the how conditions are. I want to make sure the lifeguard sees me and is aware I’m heading out there alone. If you’re really concerned, tell the lifeguard that you’re a novice swimmer and ask they keep an eye out for you. They’ll be glad you asked.

Salt water is salty!

Obvious, yes. But still surprising. Water gets in your mouth, which means salt gets in your mouth, which means your mouth is going to be puffy, dry, and wondering what the heck you just did to it. Learn to be okay with spitting, and spit away. I also like to take a bottle of water with me to rinse my mouth out after the swim. Know that the salt is going to stick to your body. It does wonders for your hair, but not so much for your skin. It’s itchy and crusty and not a good time. So you may want to be prepared to rinse off after your swim. On race day, don’t worry, because you’re going to have so much adrenaline and sweat that you’re not going to even notice!

Wetsuit + salt water= so floaty

The first time I put on my wetsuit and got in the bay I felt like I was on the moon. The float was that nifty. Fun fact- this floaty wetsuit thing also makes you faster! But with great power comes great responsibility, or so says Spiderman (although spiders can’t swim, so maybe that’s not the best analogy.) I went to a swim clinic once and the leader told us, “You can’t sink in a wetsuit, but you can drown in one.” It was a comforting and slightly disconcerting fact. Here’s the takeaway: If you start to panic, just stop moving and relax. You will float. But don’t keep your face in the water. That’s how you drown…

There are things in the water. You’re going to have to get over it.

THERE ARE CREATURES IN THE WATER!!! Forget creatures- THERE ARE SHARKS IN THE WATER!!!! Deeeeep breath, and turn off the Shark Week. If you’re afraid of sharks, stick to a protected cove away from the open ocean. You’re VERY unlikely to run into a predatory shark that far from the open ocean. VERY. If you get attacked by a preditory shark in a protected cove, buy a lottery ticket, because you are one in a gazillion. If you’re still convinced that you’re one in a gazillion, then swim in a lake! No sharks in the lake. Other creatures, however, are still going to be at play. This is when my favorite discipline of triathlon comes into play- the mental game. Tell yourself whatever will work: The fish are more scared of you than you are of them. They’re not going to touch you. They don’t pee in the water. Whatever it takes. Whenever I start to feel that creature panic sneak up on me (and it still does) I force myself to think of something else. I call it “the mental slap.” I tell my brain “No!” and wrench my thoughts back to the task at hand. Eventually you start to see the sea life as fellow swimming companions, and swimming in the open water as an adventure. An adventure where you’re a badass who swims with sharks in the ocean.

There are creatures in there!

There are creatures in there!

 You can’t see anything

I read an article about how swimming in ocean water was different than a pool simply because you have restricted visibility. I was prepared not to see anything when I (eventually) put my face in the water. What I wasn’t prepared for was being able to see about 6 inches in front of me before the light just faded down to dark. It made the water seem a lot deeper and more ominous. And I panicked, thinking of all the creatures lurking below (see point above…). Again, I mentally slapped myself, and got in the habit of closing my eyes when I put my face in the water until I had enough swim experience to not notice anymore. After all, if I can’t see it, it’s not there. Right?…

 Rock and roll waves

If you’re swimming in the open ocean, learning to ride the waves can be a real talent. A set comes along and suddenly you’re rising high and sinking low. Breathing to the side can get challenging as waves come at you unexpectedly and inevitably right when you take that breath. Practice bilateral breathing- breathing on both sides- so that you can switch it up when needed to get some air. And when you start to feel the rocking and rolling is too much, try stretching your body out straight, arms and legs splayed out like superwoman, and think like a buoy- just bob with it- until the set passes.

I hope these tips help you feel more confident heading into your first open water swim. If there’s something I didn’t cover, please send me an email at and ask! If I don’t know the answer, I will find out. I’m happy to look like an idiot so that you don’t have to.

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