Essential Outdoor Swimming Skills


Most people learn to swim in pools and transferring to the natural environment presents some differences. These differences require us to use a few additional skills and techniques to those we use in the pool.

The primary purpose of improving your outdoor swimming skills is to enhance your enjoyment of being in the water – this isn’t just for people who want to race. However, if you do wish to race, mastering these skills will undoubtedly improve your performance.

Here are some basic skills that will make your outdoor swim more enjoyable and, if you race, faster.


The ability to breathe both sides, while not essential, can be very useful when swimming outside. For example, if you are swimming parallel to the shore then keeping an eye on the land can help you stay on course. If you can only breathe one side, you may find yourself staring out to sea instead.


Sighting is just looking where you are going. In breaststroke, it’s easy as your head clears the water and you can look forward with each breath. With front crawl, you breathe to the side, so looking forward is harder. However, it’s a useful thing to do if you want to swim in a straight line.


In a pool, we make micro adjustments to our stroke to stay on track, guided by lines on the floor of the pool and lane ropes. When you take those away, it’s surprising how many people quickly veer off course. Some people will swim in circles. The straighter you swim, the less often you will need to sight and the quicker you will reach your destination. Veering to one side or the other is usually caused by asymmetries in your stroke, so practising bilateral breathing will help you swim straighter.


The biggest mistake is starting too fast. It’s very easy to do. At the beginning of a swim your nerves are tingling and you’re pumped with adrenalin. If it’s a mass start, the swimmers around you surge forwards and drag you along.

The best way to master pacing is to do regular timed swims in the pool. 

Things are different in an open water race because tactics come in to play. You may decide it’s more important to try to stay with the pack and try to live with the surges and changes of speed than to swim your own race. However, if you start too fast you will pay for it later.


If you take part in a mass participation event, you will end up swimming close to other swimmers. Try to minimise the risk. At the start, choose a position appropriate to your speed and race plans. Avoid starting on the front line in your first race unless you are exceptionally fast. Be aware of what’s going on around you and anticipate pinch points. Drop back, surge ahead or take a different line accordingly.

Secondly, stay calm and keep focused on your own swimming. Usually collisions are accidental but even if someone has purposely swum over you, it’s still not worth wasting energy to retaliate. There’s very little you can do about someone else’s swimming so just stay focused on your own. Relax and swim on.


Drafting works in swimming just like in cycling. If you swim directly behind another swimmer, or in their wake with your shoulders close to their hip, you can swim much faster for the same effort. You don’t even have to be that close. In an experiment we did in a pool with a 4m gap between swimmers, heart rate was about 10 beats per minute lower when drafting compared to leading.


This isn’t a skill in itself, but rather the result of having mastered some open water skills and feeling at home in the environment. The confidence also comes with familiarity. There isn’t any trick that we know to remove the anxiety of being out of your depth and not being able to see the bottom but the more you swim, the less you worry about it.

For more outdoor swimming inspiration and training advice, please visit


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