Why ocean swimming is worth the plunge

With many Aussies taking their passion for swimming to the open waters, ocean swimming may just be the wellness boost you need.

From landmarks on the shoreline, undulations in the water to marine life for company, ocean swimming can be a liberating wellness experience for some.

Even the most ardent swimmers admit their view is restricted to the feet of the swimmer in front, the thin black line on the bottom of the pool and its four walls.

But out in the ocean, the view is as wide as the sky.

What is ocean swimming?

With little need for special equipment, ocean swimming is a popular low-cost activity that is accessible for anyone looking to support their mental health and overall wellbeing with blue space.

“It’s a movement meditation,” Sydney personal trainer and Elements of Fitness swimming coach Peta Kilgour says.

“You’re in this incredible life source of the ocean and communing with nature in the most immersive way.

“It can make people anxious and even fearful at first but it’s amazing how that fear just disappears once you relax into it and very likely become addicted to it.

“There’s such a beautiful freedom in not having any boundaries while you swim.”

Is ocean swimming good for you?

Peta, who guides groups of up to eight people in regular ocean swims, says interest in the practice has at least doubled in recent times for all genders and ages.

She says those embarking on the new sport start for a variety of health reasons, including improving fitness, relieving stress, injury recovery and having a whole-body workout.

In a recent study, those over 65 identified physical improvements to be the biggest benefit of ocean swimming.

“When you’re swimming in the ocean, you’re using every single muscle group – your legs for power to get through the waves, your core to maintain the movement and your upper body for distance,” Peta says.

“Even the muscles in your jaw are being used in this swimming – to release and breathe the movements. It’s a pretty incredible experience.”

“I could easily do resistance training in the gym but I’d much prefer to swim in the ocean than sit at a leg press or get stressed running on a treadmill.”

Ocean swimming benefits for joint pressure

Davey Black Triathlon coach Steve Davis says ocean swimming can be useful in relieving sore muscles and is a low-impact aerobic workout because of the induced buoyancy from salt water.

With a suitable wetsuit, this can take pressure off certain stressed body parts such as the neck and shoulders while swimming, Steve explains.

“You’re more free to move across the top of the water,” he says.

“Also, compared to chlorine, the salt water is so good for you.”

Those with musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis and back pain reported reduced pain or symptoms when swimming outdoors, a study found.

“Mentally, too, it’s amazing out there,” Steve adds.

“You watch the sun rise or set, which is great for circadian rhythms and it’s calming to hear the water splashing around you.”

Ocean swimming for beginners

“I always advise my athletes to not let their ambitions get mixed with their abilities around the open water,” Steve says.

“I always get them to swim parallel to the shoreline but if it’s too rough, just don’t go in.

“Even bay swimming can get quite choppy and I wouldn’t recommend beginners swim out past the waves unless they’re under close supervision.”

He suggests starting with a 10 to 15-minute swim and building from there, to up to two hours for seasoned swimmers.

He also says it is important to know your landmarks, such as rock faces or jetties and always swim in patrolled areas.

“Practise your breathing and count your strokes to calm your nerves,” he says.

Safety tips for ocean swimming in Australia

For those looking to ocean swim safely, the Royal Life Saving Society Australia recommends staying within beach areas marked by red and yellow flags, as they are usually patrolled by lifeguards and lifesavers on duty.

A professional guide or coach can help choose the appropriate wetsuits, Peta adds, and they can also educate people on how to navigate through the waves safely.

“Understanding the surf and the ocean is at the forefront of every ocean swimming session because you have to know how to read the conditions,” she says.

“It’s not easy to spot a rip if you’re new to ocean swimming so I’m a big believer in showing ocean swimmers the rip up close and also feeling it. That’s how you learn.”

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Written by Catherine Lambert. Updated by Melissa Hong, September 2023.