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What’s the difference between pool and open water swimming?

One of our advertisers asked me yesterday if I could say in a few words what the difference is between pool and open water swimming for an article they were writing. It struck me it’s not such an easy question to answer briefly. For a start open water swimming covers such a range of options. Swimming in the Atlantic surf is hugely different to racing in the Thames for example. Variety versus consistency is clearly one big difference between open water and the pool then but it’s not a particularly helpful definition.

The usual differences people mention are the temperature, the lack of vision, the depth, no black lines to follow, no walls to hang on to, pollution, weeds, dangerous tides and currents, unfriendly wildlife and hidden obstacles. It’s a rather negative list that’s often drawn upon by authority figures who seem to want to keep us all in pools, especially after some of the tragic deaths in open water this summer.

But that’s not at all what open water swimming is about.

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be in Cork, Ireland, for the Global Open Water Swimming Conference. On Sunday we were invited to swim around Sandycove Island, a favourite local open water swimming spot. For anyone who loves open water swimming but lives far from the sea Sandycove is a beautiful, envy-inducing spot. It’s a sheltered bay with easy access to crystal clear water. The island is about 200m off shore and is about a mile to swim around. The water temperature was between 12 and 15 degrees (depending on who you asked – I didn’t see anyone actually measure it). As you swim around the uninhabited island you might catch a glimpse of the feral goats that live there, while in the sea you might see a seal or shoals of tiny blue fish darting between the gently swaying fronds of sea weed. Out around the far side of the island we had a few waves to swim through and you could watch them breaking against the rocks.

For me, that swim really captured the differences between pool and open water swimming: the feel of cool crisp water against your skin and the total immersion in nature that you can never get from a pool. Not only that, I was swimming with a group of experienced and enthusiastic swimmers from around the world, united by their love of the water, and I enjoyed their support and encouragement (I was initially a little reluctant to swim without a wetsuit) as well as some friendly competition. Afterwards I was offered hot tea and cake by people I didn’t know before.

I enjoy pool swimming too. I like the regularity of it and the warm water, but it’s more of a functional experience, something to do to keep fit, whereas open water swimming is for the joy and delight of being outside.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.