Why ocean swimming is worth the plunge

When pools around Australia shut during lockdown, many Aussies took their passion for swimming to the ocean – and found it invigorating.

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.

There are landmarks on the shoreline, undulations in the water, marine life for company and fresh air to inhale.

Swimming pool closures during lockdowns sparked the move, but there was a much deeper attraction to ocean swimming, according to Sydney-based personal trainer and Elements of Fitness swimming coach Peta Kilgour.

“It’s a movement meditation,” Peta 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.”

According to a 2018 study in the UK, weekly ocean swimming led to an immediate mood improvement for a 24-year-old woman with a major depressive disorder and anxiety, and had sustained reduction in depression symptoms after a year of continued participation.

Ocean swimming interest doubles

According to Peta, curiosity for ocean swimming has at least doubled this year as she guides groups of one to eight people in regular ocean swims, advising they do it three to five times a week.

They are of all ages, genders and their reasons for embarking on the new sport range from improving fitness, relieving stress, injury therapy and having a whole-body workout.

“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,” she 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.”

Dangers of ocean swimming for beginners

But there are cautions for beginners, especially if swimming in surf beaches.

Peta suggests starting with a professional guide or coach who can also help with choosing wet suits, locations, currents and distances.

She teaches how to recognise a rip and educates people on how to navigate through waves.

“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.”

Ocean-water buoyancy eases joint pressure

Davey Black Triathlon coach Steve Davis says ocean swimming is free, accessible and the buoyancy that comes with the salt water and a suitable wet suit takes pressure off certain stressed body parts such as the neck and shoulders while swimming.

“You’re more free to move across the top of the water but 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.”

Steve says ocean swimming is great for circulation, relieving sore muscles and is a good low-impact aerobic workout.

“Mentally, too, it’s amazing out there,” he says.

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

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

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

He 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.

Written by Catherine Lambert.