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Open-Water Swimming: Tips and Gear to Swim Outside

Woman Open Water Swimming near Bend, OregonPhoto by Jason Cornell.
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I overcame my fear of open-water swimming, and it opened a whole new world of adventures for me and my husband! This is the gear we use to swim outside.

Swimming in anything but a pool may sound simple to many, but for me the idea of being in an open body of water with no walls is terrifying.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Alaska, where the act of getting into a lake or river (glacier-fed and cold) always followed a dare. And it looked like this: Take off all your clothes, jump in, count to five, get out as quickly as possible, and shiver in front of a fire.

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But I now live part of the year in Te Anau, New Zealand — home to the deepest, most beautiful lake I have ever seen — and the other part in Bend, Oregon — home to hundreds of amazing alpine lakes. Surrounded by all this water, I decided it was time to dive in. Since beginning open-water training, I’ve had my share of anxiety, but starting slowly before getting in too deep has helped.

As an avid runner, I was able to embrace the new sport of swimrun. Whenever possible, I would plan my hot summer runs to intersect with a small lake along the way. I’d swim across and keep on running. It felt a lot less daunting to be combining swimming with something I was comfortable with. And it opened up a whole new level of training for me.

Open-Water Swimming Gear

Thankfully, swimming, like running, doesn’t require much gear. But a few key pieces will make it much more enjoyable, which will then make you more excited to go. Below, I outline my favorite gear for open-water swimming and tips for getting started.

ROKA R1 Anti-Fog Goggles: $38

ROKA R1 Swim Goggles

Perhaps the most important and overlooked swimmer-specific gear is a good pair of goggles. You can get away with a pretty cheap pair, but a bad pair of goggles can make or break your joy of swimming. A bad pair will leave you treading water adjusting and cleaning out your lenses. A good pair fits snugly and comfortably to your face and helps your vision for sighting the shoreline or faraway trees.

The ROKA R1s have been my favorite all-around pair for both open-water swimming and pool swimming. The massive field of vision and curved lenses let you see all around you. And they fit the eye socket really well. Both my husband and I love these because it makes spotting really easy. With other goggles, we have to crane our necks to see where we’re going, but with these, we can see up and to the sides easily. This allows you to relax your neck and focus more on your stroke.

See the ROKA Anti-Fog Goggles

ROKA Neoprene Skull Swim Cap: $30

ROKA Neoprene Swim Cap

A swim cap is another piece of gear that is often overlooked until you dive into an icy cool lake or are swimming laps at the pool with hair in your eyes. The kind of cap you need depends on the type of workout you’re about to do and where you are. When I’m swimming laps at the pool or in a warm lake, I reach for a basic swim cap, which you can buy anywhere at a relatively cheap price (or you can get for free if you enter a race).

However, when I’m headed up to one of the alpine lakes, I never leave the house without my ROKA neoprene cap. While it’s not as visible as other neoprene caps, I find the ROKA one to be the most comfortable of the bunch that I’ve tried. It’s 3 mm thick and made with the brand’s hydrophobic nano coating, making it both durable and warm.

See the ROKA Neoprene Swim Cap

New Wave Swim Buoy: $40

New Wave Swim Buoy

A huge part of open-water swimming is safety, especially if you’re in an area where the water is choppy or there are multiple user groups (like powerboats!). While bright swim caps can help, a swim buoy is way more visible. It’s a crucial piece of gear for swimmers who are going for long distances. The New Wave Swim buoy is highly visible and can be used as a flotation device in case of emergency. It can even store food, keys, and shoes for point-to-point swims or swimruns.

The New Wave is also the lightest buoy on the market, coming in at just under 10 ounces. I was a little hesitant to use it, as I’m not the fastest swimmer out there and didn’t want anything to drag me down. But once I was going, I couldn’t even feel it. The best part was that my fear of getting hit by a boater diminished after my husband took it out, as I could see him from what looked like a mile away.

See the New Wave Swim Buoy

Nike Flash Bonded Fastback Bikini Top ($54) & Sport Bottom ($27)

Nike Flash Bonded Swimsuit

Having a good suit is key for both performance and personal motivation. The Nike Flash Back Bikini top and bottom succeed at both thanks to the irritation-free bonded straps, fully lined flat seams that hold everything in place, and a drawstring for a great fit. Whether underneath a wetsuit or on its own, it moved well with me both in and out of the water.

In addition to swimming in lakes with it, I’ve also been training in a chlorinated pool with it as my sole suit three times a week. After 3 months of constant chlorinated use, it has yet to show any sign of wear or tear. This suit has an amazing iridescent accent to it that makes you feel fast in the water, and superwoman-like out of the water.

ROKA Maverick Pro II Wetsuit: $750

ROKA women's Maverick Wetsuit

One of the main complaints of open-water swimming is the fact that, more often than not, you have to wear a wetsuit. While wetsuits keep you warm and afloat, many restrict your arm movement, making your stroke, pace, and energy deteriorate. The ROKA Maverick Pro II shuts all of this down with their Arms-UP construction, which allows for unlimited shoulder flexibility. Plus, the stretchier limestone-based neoprene feels great on and has a comfortable, nonbinding neckline.

Many wetsuits take forever to put on because the neoprene is so hard and stiff. The Maverick took me all of 2 minutes to put on, and I was never scared about putting holes in it because of its ultradurable hydrophobic nano coating. I now look forward to putting my wetsuit on and am always a little bit bummed when a lake is too warm to wear it.

See the ROKA Maverick Pro II

blueseventy SwimRun Wet Suit: $250

blueseventy Swim Run Wetsuit

I did my first few swimruns in a normal open-water wetsuit and chafed and overheated during anything but the shortest of sections. Many of the other sport-specific swimrun suits I’ve tried are best described as designed by swimmers who need to run. The blueseventy Alliance shines as a suit that feels like it was created by runners that need to swim.

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Blueseventy’s name refers to the fact that 70 percent of the Earth is covered in blue water. Based in Seattle, the brand has been in the adventure swim business for over 25 years and has created groundbreaking swim gear for Ironman champions, distance swimmers, and even pool racers.

Blueseventy designed its new Alliance Wetsuit specifically for the unique needs of the swimrun sport. It has short legs that don’t interfere with a running stride. And its front zip makes it easy to “cabin down” as you exit the water and transition to running.

This is essential, as it allows the ribcage and abdomen to expand and contract for easier athletic breathing. The arm length is cuttable to personal preference without compromising the suit’s integrity, and there are three hidden pockets for essential nutrition during longer sessions. Thick neoprene calf sleeves are also available to help with leg buoyancy if desired. The suit also contains two integrated tether loops for attaching a swim buoy (for visibility and safety) or towing a slower teammate in a race.

See the blueseventy Alliance Wetsuit

Swim Training Aids: From $22

Nike Swim training Aids and Accessories

Training in the pool is great for building stoke and confidence. It’s a good time to focus on technique and make use of training aids. Nike’s hand paddles, pull buoys, and swim fins have helped me increase my speed 10-fold.

For building upper body strength, the pull buoy has an asymmetrical shape that allows you to alter the level of buoyancy and intensity of your training. And the hand paddles add resistance and don’t slip off like a lot of other hand paddles out there. For kicking, the Nike Swim Fins are ultracomfortable and a bit smaller than other classic fins.

See all Nike Swim Training Aids

How to Swim Open Water: The Beginner’s Guide

Join the Masters Swim Club

Swimming with people is so much more fun than swimming alone. Many of the folks in my Masters Swim Club are also avid open-water swimmers. So chances are good you’ll find some friends to go swim outside with. On top of that, the workouts, tips, and new community you will gain are worth it all on its own.

Chelsey Magness Open Water Swimming near Bend, Oregon
Swimming in an alpine lake near Bend, Oregon. Photo by Jason Cornell.

Start Small

Instead of looking across the lake and getting overwhelmed at the distance, start small. What’s the shortest distance you can go? Is there a small bay you can swim across? Or perhaps count your strokes until you hit 50 and turn around. The first time I did a swim, I went to the closest buoy. Each swim after I would go out a little farther.

Find a Friend

It’s an extra bonus if you find a friend who will do a swim with you, but it’s actually not necessary. Many times, all I needed was someone to just be onshore for me. That little bit of security knowing that someone was watching out for me was enough to get the courage to jump in and go.

Open Water Swimming in Oregon
A swim buoy and brightly colored gear help with visibility. Photo by Jason Cornell.

The Hardest Part Is Getting In

No matter if it’s at the pool or jumping into the lake, taking the initial plunge is always the hardest part. But after you take three or four strokes, you’ll realize you’re totally okay and actually enjoying yourself. Realizing I will be happy in a matter of seconds has made the process easier and easier.

Stay Visible

The most important piece of advice for open-water swimming is to stay visible. Many wetsuits and swim caps are black and not flashy enough to catch a boater’s eye. So if you’re in a high-traffic area or going for a long-distance swim, be sure to get a brightly colored swim buoy.

Since starting this open-water swim journey 8 months ago, I’ve also been growing a human. Swimming has become the only training I’ve been able to do throughout my entire pregnancy that leaves me feeling re-energized and refreshed. I’m grateful that this gear has been able to expand with me, and I’m excited to keep doing it postpartum and beyond.

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