Most people don’t consider open-water swimming to be at the top of the list when they are advised to take up an aerobic exercise program. Usually once you get past running and biking and down to the water, you think about a swimming pool. Of course, for folks in the middle of the country there really isn’t much choice.
But for those who do have access to an ocean, gulf, bay, lake, pond or any other kind of open body of water it would behoove you to think about the benefits of swimming there. This kind of open-water exercising is generally referred to as “surf swimming” and not only can it provide more than adequate exercise, it can also be a lot more fun than doing laps in a pool.
Unfortunately, surf swimming also comes with its own share of disadvantages and dangers. Thousands of people drown each year from swimming in open water; more than those who drown in pools. As far as how these deaths relate to swimming for exercise benefits the news is good: the overwhelming majority of open-water drownings are associated with alcohol consumption.
The first rule in taking a dip for whatever reason, therefore, is to stay out of the water if you are drinking. Probably the second best advice that you can get is to never swim alone. If you don’t necessarily have someone with you while you are swimming, at least choose a populated beach or somewhere with a lifeguard on duty. Of course, if you do go swimming with a friend, it won’t do you any good if that person isn’t a capable swimmer too.
Once you arrive at the water you should also do a test of the shallow portion before taking a chance on swimming farther out. While the water may seem warm or calm toward the shore, it could get considerably colder or rougher the farther away from the coastline you get. Don’t swim out. Walk slowly out to see how far you can get on your feet without your head slipping under the surface. This is also a great way to test the strength of underwater currents which can be fatally hazardous.
The undertow is rarely a cause for worry while swimming in open water; far more threatening is the underwater current known as the rip current. A rip current is an underwater wave of sorts, usually between ten to twenty feet wide that can move quite forcefully. Rip currents are notoriously difficult to determine from above the surface of the water.
The best way to spot a rip current is to look for a noticeable interruption in the pattern of waves or a brown discoloration that indicates a shallow sandbar. The most important thing to remember about rip currents is that should you find yourself trapped within their tenacious grip that you don’t struggle against it. Instead, swim along with the current while angling your direction toward the shore.
One other vital thing to remember when swimming in open-water is to obey all signs that warn against swimming. These signs can come either in the form of color-coded warnings against weather dangers or signs that warn of contamination or other health issues. If you are unsure about the safety of the water, the wisest course is simply to avoid it and head to the nearest pool.