Taking the Plunge with Open Water Swimming

Open Water Swimming
Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming is on the rise around the world right now, as we all look for ways to improve both our physical and mental health. Got some questions? So did we, so here’s the lowdown if you’re looking to know more about this exhilarating sport:

  • Firstly, what clothing and equipment do you need?

 Some people choose to wear wetsuits, while others do not – the choice is up to you and what you feel comfortable with. Some swimmers say they experience more benefits without a wetsuit, but it completely depends on your own body and unique situation. You’ll also need:

  • a swimming costume
  • a swimming cap (sometimes two, if it’s very cold)
  • goggles (there are many types to choose from including racing, outdoor, wide, narrow, reflective, clear, etc).
  • a tow-float (buoy) for safety – this could be for yourself or other swimmers you come across who need help. A whistle can also provide a way to call for help if you need it.
  • earplugs are an option to stop cold water getting in your ears
  • some people also swim with Vaseline to stop chaffing
  • What should I know before starting?

Professor Mike Tipton and Dr Heather Massey are academics at the University of Portsmouth who are doing significant research into the benefits of cold water swimming. In their recent webinar, they give the following tips (among others):

  • Get a medical check up before starting
  • Swim with a club in a supervised way, with other more experienced swimmers
  • Enter the water slowly
  • Habituate (meaning do it regularly, starting with short periods of up to 10 minutes)
  • Avoid holding your breath
  • Wear something brightly coloured, so that you’re visible (hat, tow-float, etc.)
  • Check weather and the tides before swimming, especially watching out for rips


  • What are the benefits?

It’s been scientifically proven that exercise improves mental health, along with the proximity to green and blue spaces. The difference is that when it comes to cold water swimming, we only have anecdotal evidence showing these benefits at the moment, and we’re still developing the scientific understanding to back this up. So says Dr Massey, who is part of one of these research teams. But the anecdotal research is significant.

Cape Town based Tom Maydon has found cold water swimming immensely beneficial to his mental health. “I have over the years struggled with depression and cold water helps me like nothing else. It’s a reset button and I feel utterly rejuvenated after spending 20 minutes in the cold.” If you need support with your mental health, some medical aid companies like Fedhealth offer 24-hour helplines you can contact for advice.

Beyond these mental health benefits, open water swimming fans also site that being in close proximity to nature (as opposed to the manmade clinical nature of a gym swimming pool for example) is one of the huge draw cards. Tom also mentions the mindfulness aspects to the physical act of gliding through the water and trying to find the perfect stroke, like a Tai Chi practitioner would do. In fact, he loves the cold so much that he has even taken up ice swimming, something currently popular in Cape Town exercise circles.

Want to start? Do some research into open water swimming clubs in your area – while these may be easier to find in coastal regions like Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible inland. There are swimming groups in Joburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein too, showing that wherever you are in the country, there’s a growing group of people addicted to the exhilaration and feelings of wellbeing that this sport provides. It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone – because it sounds like the rewards are numerous.