How to swim in the ocean
Learn how to swim in the ocean safely, with these open water swimming tips for beginners.
Do you want to know how to swim in the ocean in as much safety as possible? You’ll be joining some 91 billion Americans who already love a sea swim, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Open water or wild swimming has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly as pools were closed during the pandemic. In fact it’s the fourth most popular recreational sport in the US, says the CDC.
It’s no wonder so many of us are getting hooked on this revitalizing cardio workout, which is just as good for the brain as it is for the body, a Perceptual and Motor Skills study published in SAGE Journals found.
Research by the CDC revealed that just 2.5 hours a week of aerobic activity like swimming could decrease the risk of chronic illnesses.
Swimming in the ocean provides so many benefits, from boosting your immune system and activating feel-good endorphins, to improving circulation and reducing stress, sea swimming expert Amanda Evans told Live Science.
"The breathing side of open swimming, and particularly the rhythm of breathing, is vital for concentration. The water temperature changes all the time, which is excellent for your circulation and immune system," said Evans, who has launched a new animated Sky Original TV series Obki, inspired by her love of sea swimming.
"You even burn more calories swimming in the sea because the heart has to pump faster in cold water and the body has to work harder to keep everything warm - so it’s always a bonus to have a cup of tea and piece of cake afterwards!"
Want to find out more about how to swim in the ocean? Read on to find out everything you need to know to take the plunge. We've also answered another question asked by many swimmers: Is it dangerous to eat right before you swim?
"Open water swimming is intensely rewarding but comes with obvious risks," said qualified swimming coach Sarah Wiseman, who runs an open water swim school.
"Sea swimming is at the riskier end of the scale due to the ever-changing conditions. A location you may consider ‘safe’ to swim one day may not be the next."
As an open water swimmer, you are responsible for your own safety. Wiseman told Live Science: "Gathering information on potential risks and hazards is a gradual process – you can do this both before you set on a location and when you get to your chosen swimming spot. Ask yourself, is it safe for me to swim? Do your own risk
Safety is paramount when it comes to learning how to swim in the ocean. One way you can do this is to scout a location before you go swimming.
Wiseman said: "Try and choose a beach that has a lifeguard. If you’re new to the area, speak to the lifeguards, let them know your plans and follow their advice. Look at where other people are swimming. Don’t be afraid to talk to locals, find out if there is a local swimming group, either organised or informal, and where possible, swim with others.
"Check the weather forecast and tide timetables. Take note of wave and swell height, tide timings and whether it is a neap or spring tide. Make sure the information is local to the area you are going to!"
Useful websites to check are the Red Cross and the National Weather Service.
Learning how to swim in the ocean comes with time and experience, and respecting the sea is one of the first steps, explained Wiseman.
- Before you go for your swim, take a while to observe the water. Look at what is happening, how is the ocean behaving?
- What type of waves are they? How are the waves breaking?
- What type of beach is it? (Sandy, shingles, pebbles, rocky, silty or muddy?)
- Are there any rocks? If so, where are they? How big are they?
- Are you in a bay or long shoreline? Is the bay sheltered?
- Can you see any rip currents? Do you know how to spot a rip current?
- Is there anybody else using the beach? Are there any boat users or creel (fisherman’s) pots in the water? Are the boats motorized or sailing craft?
Getting in and out of the water
"Plan how you’re going to get out of the ocean before you get into the water and consider any currents, the tidal flow and wind direction," said Wiseman.
"Decide how long you are going to be in the sea for, then walk from your exit point up to where you plan to get in. This gives you a good view of any potential hazards.
"A good choice for an entry or exit point would be an area that you can get out of quickly if needed. Ideally try to find somewhere with less pebbles, seaweed or rocks."
If you want to swim in the ocean, you’re probably asking yourself: What kit do I need for sea swimming?
"Wear a brightly coloured swimming hat so people can see you and use a tow float (a waterproof bag filled with air that makes it buoyant) if you have one. The bag is attached to you with a strap and floats behind you as you swim," advised Wiseman. "While they aren’t a safety device, it’s great for when you want to take a breather from swimming or have a spot of cramp."
You also might want to invest in a wetsuit for swimming, and a Dryrobe for when you get out. This is basically a long changing robe with a waterproof layer that doubles as a towel, and protects your modesty while you get changed out of or back into your clothes.
Wiseman added: "A good set of goggles helps reduce the amount of water coming into contact with your eyes, and neoprene gloves and socks are great for keeping fingers and toes warm. Make sure you have plenty of warm clothing, even in the summer months
Health and wellbeing benefits
As well as the obvious physical benefits of swimming in the ocean, there are several health and wellbeing perks too, particularly as a Centre for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that the less we interact with nature the more disconnected our lives become.
But swimming in the ocean could be one way to reconnect with nature – and ourselves, said cold water fan and extreme athlete Wim Hof.
Hof told Live Science: "The number one killer in the West is cardiovascular-related disease. It is because we are alienated from our vascular system - it is not being activated, not being stimulated.
"This is because we spend all our time in a warm, comfortable environment. If you just go into the cold, you reactivate these systems. I recommend swimming in natural water every day. It gives me a rush of energy as it activates my body and mind and forces a deep concentration."
Amanda Evans agreed. "When I started swimming in the ocean, the connection to the open water helped me so much with my mental health, especially when I lost my mother. I love sea swimming so much because it makes me feel alive and at one with nature," said Evans.
The mental health boost we enjoy from being by the sea has a name - the Blue Mind. Marine biologist Wallace J Nichols, who coined the phrase, explained: "The term ‘blue mind’ describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on, or underwater."
He said: "It’s the antidote to what we refer to as ‘red mind,’ which is the anxious, over-connected, and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life. Research has proven that spending time near the water is essential to achieving elevated and sustained happiness."
Swimming in the ocean has also been credited for boosting immunity, according to a 2020 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This is because sea swimming gets your blood flowing and as the body adapts to the cold water, blood rushes through the veins, improving circulation. It’s believed this cold shock can kick start the immune system too, producing more infection-fighting white blood cells.
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Maddy has been a writer and editor for 25 years, and has worked for some of the UK's bestselling newspapers and women’s magazines, including Marie Claire, The Sunday Times and Women's Health. Maddy is also a fully qualified Level 3 Personal Trainer, specializing in helping busy women over 40 navigate menopause.