Pool Swimming vs. Open Water Swimming

By: Rose Beasley


There are a number of differences between a swimming pool and open water and just because you’re a strong pool swimmer, doesn’t mean you’ll be good at open water swimming. Swimming in open water is drastically different from pool swimming. In a pool, you are not swimming against currents or waves but swimming peacefully on flat, unmoved water allowing you to pull your body more easily through the water without the added resistance or physical elements. In open water, like the ocean, you are facing rip tides, waves and swells that can push and pull your body in a number of different directions. Even if you are in excellent physical condition, perfecting your swimming skills in a controlled body of water like a swimming pool is highly recommended. This is excellent advice because even the best swimmers are at risk in the ocean due to overlooked elements including shortness of breath, the cold temperature of the water shocking the body, and sudden panic brought on by noticing a shark or other marine creatures nearby.

The differences between open water swimming and pool swimming are vast.

One difference that is very important to consider is your swim stroke. In open water, it is important to practice sighting because you will be swimming in a much bigger space. Swimming pools give you the advantage of always knowing where you are and what is around you.  Also, cloudy or foggy weather can decrease visibility making it harder to see where you’re going. This next difference is very important to understand.  In open water you will face swimming in rougher conditions and through waves and choppy water, whereas in the pool the water is guaranteed to be still. Failing to adapt to these conditions can have drastic and scary consequences.

Consider mental challenges that may arise when swimming in open water. Cold water temperatures aren't the only mind game large bodies of water can play on.  Open water has a number of other mental challenges that don’t exist in the pool. For instance, you cannot stand up in the middle of a lake or sea like a pool which is a controlled area. You may also not be able to see anything apart from darkness below. Therefore, the feeling of being out of your depth or what lies underneath can be a major challenge to overcome. Swimming in open water takes a lot more energy and you may need to take a break.  There are no lane lines or walls to hold onto and the water may be deep enough  that you can’t touch the bottom. In this case you’ll need to be able to tread water. Not sure how? No problem. Treading water is something you can learn to do in the deep end of the pool with instruction from a swim coach or experienced open water swimmer.

Although swimming in open water is more difficult, there are also many health benefits to taking a dip in a lake, river or ocean. These benefits include the following:

  • It has been proven by scientists that being immersed in cold water three times a week increases your white blood cell counts which helps fight infection and boost your immune system by activating antibodies and increasing the metabolic rate.
  • In Sweden it’s common practice to let babies take naps outdoors in the cold, which has proven to not only help them be more resistant to diseases but they also sleep deeper and more soundly. Insomniacs are told to have cold showers to aid their sleep.
  • In Siberia as a ritual they dump a bucket of cold water over the head of children aged 2-6 years old. It has shown that 95 per cent of children who participate are healthy through the flu season as opposed to 75 per cent of those children who do not take part.
  • Better circulation – cold water exposure over time is shown to improve circulation, since cold water exposure causes your blood flow to be re-directed to your vital organs. It forces your body to circulate your blood more efficiently and effectively.
  • Temperature regulation – cold water helps limit heat loss. As it decreases core body temperature it actually regulates overall body temperature.
  • Relief from symptoms of depression – cold water has proven to help relieve the symptoms of depression. Due to the high density of cold water receptors in the skin, a cold dip is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from nerve endings to the brain, which can result in an anti-depression effect.
  • Healthy skin and hair – cold water helps close the pores and doesn’t dry out your skin like the warm and chemically treated pool water. It is also great for your hair as cold temperatures close the hair cuticles, making it stronger.
  • No chemicals – as well as irritating the skin, chlorine is absorbed by the body primarily through inhalation. Many pool swimmers suffer a cough or sore throat during and following a training session. Open water swimmers can breathe deep the fresh air of their surroundings.
  • Energy increase – cold water boosts energy levels, nerve endings stand up and the heart starts racing. It is one of the best possible ways to give yourself a natural high.
  • Helps you maximize your breathing capabilities – cold water forces you to breath deeper, by forcing you to pause momentarily as a reflex to the immersion. This opens up the lungs and helps bring in more oxygen.
  • Minimize pain – reduces chronic pain, body aches and inflammation, regulates nervous system, improves kidney function and overall improves circulation.
  • Non- resistance activity – ideal sport for individuals who have had injuries or impairments as it’s a non weight bearing activity and resistance free, in addition you are working the majority of muscles so you still get a workout.

Regardless of where you choose to dive in, swimming is an amazing physical and mental workout. Just be sure to always follow safety regulations, always swim with a buddy or two, and remain aware of how your body is responding to conditions.  Now go make a splash this summer!

This article is brought to you by: The Swimming Swan