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An introduction to open water swimming

About the Sport

Swim England has a long association with open water swimming and has run a national open water championship for more than 100 years.

Competitive swimming at the Olympics traces its roots to competitions in the sea, lakes and rivers rather than pools, although modern open water swimming races tend to be held over longer distances than are swum in the pool.

The sport has increased in popularity since men’s and women’s 10km Marathon races were included in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing 2008, with English swimmers Keri-anne Payne and Cassandra Patten winning silver and bronze respectively for Team GB.

The 10km Marathon was one of the most popular events at the London 2012 Olympics, with hundreds turning out to support Payne in the open water swimming race held in the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Open water swimming distances

While the Olympic open water swimming is held over 10km, distances of 5km, 10km and 25km are contested at the FINA World Championships and LEN European Championships.

While the majority of open water swimming races are based on individual performances with all competitors in the water at one time, other formats include a team event and a time trial.

Domestic open water swimming events in England are usually shorter distances with 1.5km, 3km and 5km all common.

Junior international distances will also be shorter with U18s often swimming 7.5km and U16s swimming 5km.

How different is it to competitive pool swimming?

The simple answer is… very different!

Starts will usually be from a jetty where all swimmers will line up and dive in at the same time. From there on out, it’s a battle to see who can get to the front and lead the way to the first turning buoy.

The proximity of swimmers means there’s a fair amount of physicality as people jostle for position.

Open water swimming courses are usually marked by three or four buoys, with swimmers completing one or a number of loops of the course. A common course will see swimmers completing a 2.5km loop four times.

Open water swimming also demands a handful of techniques unique to the discipline such as backstroke turns around buoys, drafting and sighting.