Swimming at Seward Park

3 Tips for Dipping Your Toes Into Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming can be frigid, murky and downright scary.

Want to go?

You should, because open water swimming in the Pacific Northwest, whether in Seattle’s Lake Washington or the Willamette River in Portland, can also be refreshing, invigorating and a whole lot of fun.

“Swimming in the lake is one million times better than the pool,” says Emily Lang, a lifelong swimmer and trainer. “To be outside having a natural experience is so much nicer.”

Open water swimming’s not as straightforward as a dip in the local pool. There’s cloudy water and currents to swim through, boats to watch out for and physical limits to be aware of. There may also be a little bit of fear to overcome.

But with the right attitude, the right equipment and the right amount of training and precaution, there’s no reason to stay dry. With the right wetsuit, experience, and precautions you can swim in the lakes all year round. Remember that a swimmer is very small in a big lake. Open water swim during daylight hours and tow a kayak or brightly colored float for visibility and to grab onto if you need a break.

Here are three tips to help you make the most of your open water swim.

Find a buddy

Safety always comes first. For open water swimming, that means swimming with a training partner or someone who’d be happy to kayak alongside you during your swim. An added bonus: if your swimming buddy is at the same experience level as you, you’ll work through any challenges together; if your partner’s more experienced, there’s extra knowledge and confidence for you to borrow.

Dress for the occasion

The right gear can make or break someone’s affinity for open water swims. Leak- and fog-free goggles are key, as is a properly-fitting wetsuit. Make sure you pick one that’s for swimming — usually available at area outdoor shops — and not for surfing or scuba diving. Earplugs can be helpful, and don’t skimp on your swim cap: the brighter and louder, the better for visibility. Some open water swimmers also tow brightly-colored floats that not only help you be seen, but also holds water and food and acts as a personal flotation device, should the need arise.

Get out of the pool

While swimming in a pool, you’re always able to get someplace—the other side. With open water swimming, the other side can be a long ways away. If you take a swimming pool mindset with you into a lake or a river, “it’s going to drive you crazy,” Lang says. Instead, slip into a comfortable rhythm and focus more on what you’re doing, rather than where you’re going.

And while we’re talking mental mindsets, remember that with open water swimming, as with any new sport or activity, there’s bound to be some initial anxiety. The hardest first step is usually the one that takes you out your door.

“Just go for it,” Lang says. “Overwhelmingly, I’ve found that people are scared or don’t know about it at first. But after they try it, they love the liberation.”

Jon Bell

Jon Bell writes about the outdoors, fitness, health, and a range of other topics from his home in Lake Oswego, OR. He is also the author of "On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon's Perilous Peak."

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