How Hard Is It to Swim a Mile in Open Water?

How Hard Is It to Swim a Mile in Open Water?

Swimming a mile in the open water can range from very difficult and challenging to very easy and enjoyable depending on your level of experience and expertise.

Let’s look at the various possibilities for four general types of swimmers:

Fast Experienced Swimmers

Fast Inexperienced Swimmers

Average Swim-Safe Newcomers

* Slower or Older Newbies

American 2020 Olympian Ashley Twichell winning the aQuellé Midmar Mile in South Africa

Fast Experienced Swimmers

You are considered a fast experienced swimmer if you swim at least 2-3 miles (3-5 km) in the pool 3-6 days per week.  In a competitive mile race, you tend to be more focused on winning or placing high, either overall or in your age group divisions.

You should position yourself at or near the front of the pack at the start of the race.   Once the race starts, you should sprint out to the first turn buoy and try to position yourself at the front of the pack.  Draft and position yourself as best you can, preferably right off the hips of your competitors in the lead or in the lead pack – until the last turn buoy

Expect our heart rate to be high throughout the race, especially with the fast start.

Practice some body surfing before the race starts if the race is in the ocean with an onshore finish.

Know exactly the race course and understand the currents or tidal flow that could either hurt or hinder you between turn buoys. If you can, swim out to the first turn buoy before the race starts in order to get a feel for the currents or tidal flow.

Degree of Difficulty for Fast Experienced Swimmers

The degree of difficulty for fast experienced swimmers depends how competitive and fast you are and want to swim.  Swimming a fast mile – either in the pool or in the open water – is a gut-wrenching, gut-busting endurance event between 16 – 20 minutes for fast swimmers.  Your pulse rate will be high and you will feel lactate build up in your arms and legs.  But the competition will be fun and the camaraderie among the competitors – of all ages – after the race will be enjoyable.  You can share your first-hand experiences with others in order to improve or perform better next year.

Fast Inexperienced Swimmers

You are a fast inexperienced swimmer if you train hard in a pool daily, but you have little or no experience in open water swimming.  In this case, look for the fast experienced open water swimmers and line up at the start directly behind them.  

Let them start before you, but draft right on their feet or just off their hips or knees.  Let the experienced swimmers let you throughout the course, until the last turn buoy or until you know exactly where the finish is.

Learn to body surf and practice wave riding before the race starts if the race is in the ocean with an onshore finish.

Know exactly the race course – visualize it in the water – and understand that adverse currents or a positive tidal flow that could either hurt or hinder you throughout the course. If you can, swim out to the first turn buoy before the race starts in order to get a feel for the currents or tidal flow.

Make sure your goggles and swim cap are snug and fit well.  Apply a bit of skin lubricant or Vaseline to your outer shoulders and ankle area so if competitors try to impede your progress or pull on your legs, their hands will slip off.  Apply any sunscreen to your body after the race numbers have been put on your hands or shoulders.

In your first race, you may be surprising how much physicality there is among the swimmers – at the start, around the turn buoys, between the buoys, and at the start.  Some of the physicality is intentional, but most of it is unintentional.  Many swimmers can not swim straight and they simply are running into you without an evil intentions.  

Your goggles or your swim cap may be knocked off during the race so it is better to wear two swim caps, if possible.  Place your goggle straps between your two swim caps; this will help keep your goggles on.

Degree of Difficulty for Fast Inexperienced Swimmers

The degree of difficulty for fast inexperienced swimmers depends how competitive the overall race is.  If the race is highly competitive and crowded with hundreds (or thousands) of swimmers, then your first experience may be a learning one.  

Swimming your first mile – without lane lines or flip turns especially in rough water – can be an eye-opening experience.  The race may feel out of control and so confusing with so many swimmers around you, especially if there is a lot of physicality from bumping and impeding to leg pulls and elbows in the gut.

You will probably be quite nervous at the start – this is natural.  Try to calm your heart rate throughout the race by not hyperventilating and keeping good stroke mechanics. 

While the actual competition may be discombobulating and you may feel like you swam an entire mile in a washing machine, enjoy the camaraderie among the competitors after the race.  If you can see a video of the race after, you can share a laugh and learn a lot with first experience in the open water.

Commit yourself to entering in another race.

Average Swim-Safe Newcomers

Let the faster swimmers take the most advantageous positions at or near the start of the race.  Stand back and let other faster or younger swimmers sprint into the water at the start.  There is no need to rush into the water or get trampled by the more aggressive swimmers.  

Make sure that your goggles and swim cap stay firmly on your head and feel free to swim breaststroke or simply stop to look forward so you can better understand where to swim.  Turn over on your back and do backstroke if you get tired or simply want to enjoy the experience.

You may see marine life like fish, turtles, dolphins, a coral reef or manta rays – or you may run into plastic or other types of debris.  

You may smell diesel fuel exhaust from the safety or official boats on the course.  It may stink and cause you to cough if the diesel is overbearing.  In this case, simply stop and tread water or do a little breaststroke and let the diesel-spewing boat pass you by.

Throughout the race look around you to make sure you are heading in the right direction.  Navigational IQ may be your most underdeveloped open water skill.  Learning how to navigate well – and straight – in the water 

Enjoy the experience and understand that you may be bumped into inadvertently by other swimmers.  

Degree of Difficulty for Average Swim-Safe Newcomers

The degree of difficulty for average swim-safe swimmers depends how crowded the conditions are and how rough or cold the water is.  If the race is held in very rough water or cold(er) waters, then your first race may be a challenge.  If the water is too rough or too cold, your experience will be most definitely be a learning one.  

If you feel unsafe at any time during the race, make sure to stop, raise one of your arms to wave, and call for help.  There should be a lifeguard or some safety staff on the course observing on a nearby kayak, paddleboard, Jet Ski or boat to help you.  If they come over, you can either get out of the water – no shame in that – or simply talk with the lifeguard to understand how much further or where to swim.

A DNF – or a Did Not Finish – can happen to anyone.  It is always better to be safe rather than sorry. 

Swimming your first mile – without lane lines or far from shore – can be a scary challenge.  The race will go much more smoother if you have a Swim Buddy, a friend of similar speed who can swim right next to you.  Always feel free to stop anytime and tread water or swim breaststroke, if only to catch your breath or see exactly where you should be swimming.  

You may be nervous at the start, in the middle, and at the end of the race.  This is to be expected – and why having a Swim Buddy will help calm your nerves and give you more confidence.  Even if you do not know anyone before the start of the race, simply talk to other swimmers who look to be similar speed with a lack of experience.  They probably are thinking the exact same things as you.   

Most importantly, commit yourself to entering in another race.

Slower or Older Newbies

Stand back and let everyone – or nearly everyone – start before you.  Then enter the water at your own pace and swim comfortably – never faster than your own pace.  There is no need to get out of breath or start to hyperventilate.  Swim to finish; there is not need to push yourself beyond your own comfortable pace.

Be confident that the lifeguards and on-course safety personnel will be looking out for you.  The safety net of the race are always more cognizant of the slower or older swimmers than the fast young swimmers in the front. 

If you feel unsafe at any time during the race, make sure to stop, raise one of your arms to wave, and call for help. Do this immediately and without hesitation.  Swim back to closest shore or pontoon or turn buoy and wait for help.  Swim back to the start if necessary if you do not immediately receive help.  

The most immediate safety net around you are other swimmers.  Swimmers are generally a very friendly and helpful types of humans.  Fellow swimmers – including people who you have never met before in your life – will come to your aid in any emergency.  

Degree of Difficulty for Slow or Older Newbies

The degree of difficulty for slower or older newbies can depend on a wide variety of factors: distance, rough water conditions, cold(er) water temperatures, presence of marine life, and lack of safety personnel.

Only enter the water if you feel COMPLETELY comfortable and confident in yourself.  If you do not feel comfortable or confident, always feel free to pull out or seek the help of a lifeguard or fellow swimmer(s).

You should swim very, very comfortably and feel free to swim as slowly as you wish.  There is no rush.  Enjoy the experience, however daunting it may first appear.  

Once you finish and hit the shore, you will feel overwhelmed by your sense of accomplishment.  Feel proud that relatively few humans on Planet Earth can do what you just did.  Fewer than 2.3% of humans can swim a mile in the open water – or pool.  

Congratulations on a job very well done.

For further education, enroll in our Open Water Swimming Course:

WOWSA Open Water Swimming Course

Open Water Swimming Course young athletes, adult athletes just getting into the sport, triathletes who are better at running or cycling, or multi-sport athletes who wish to improve their swimming performance.