It’s long been understood and accepted that there is no better form of exercise than swimming. Easy on the joints, soothing to the soul, and a full body workout every time. There is a reason that swimming is one of the few sports that we can do from cradle to grave — a truly all ages pastime. The trouble is pool access can be problematic. Whether it’s too expensive, too crowded or in today’s new world order — simply closed for the foreseeable future. More and more, swimmers are turning to our lakes, rivers and oceans for their aquatic fix. We have no shortage of open water options in Canada, but let’s be honest — you’ll need a little more than a speedo and a pair of goggles for most of our season. We’ve put together this guide to help get you back in the water as quickly and safely as possible.
It goes without saying that our waters can be a little brisk — especially early in the spring and later in the fall. You will want to have a sense of the water temperature of the body of water you will be jumping into. Lot’s of great websites can help you with this information, but remember that conditions can change quickly with deeper lakes experiencing an upwelling which leads to colder deeper water moving up to the top. For the Great Lakes in April and October you are going to want a 4/3mm for sure. As we head into May/June and September a 3/2mm will work great. A lot of swimmers will enjoy a little bit of added insulation even in the height of summer, and for that a spring suit is perfect. When it comes to choosing a suit, we have included a brand specific size guide for every suit to make your selection easier. Some women will fit nicely into a unisex suit, but there are women's specific suits as well. Don’t forget about the kids, as you know they will be chomping at the bit to get in the water! We understand that choosing a wetsuit online can be a challenge, so it’s certainly worth a trip into the shop to try on a couple options.
For the colder months or for those that are prone to cold fingers, a pair of neoprene gloves are a great way to stay warm and maintain your feel for the water. When I’m in my 4/3mm, I prefer a thicker 5/3mm glove and when I’m in my 3/2mm, I’ll reach for my 3/2mm gloves or skip them altogether. If you are going to swim through the winter months, you may want to consider a pair of 7/5mm mittens to keep your fingers snugly together.
If you are prone to cold feet, you will be tempted to pick up a pair of booties. The issue with booties is that they are very difficult to swim in due to the excess bulk, and more importantly, the tendency to force the ankle in a 90 degree ankle. For a good freestyle kick, you are going to want maximal plantar flexion (pointed toes) and the boot structure will fight against that. Fear not, as there is a great product for you and it comes in the form of a neoprene sock. These socks allow for the desired plantar flexion of the ankle for an optimal freestyle kick. At 5mm they are plenty warm for the colder conditions and with the grip on the sole, they are great for walking over rocks as you get in and out of the water
We all know how much heat we can lose out of our heads, so you may want to add some head coverage to your neoprene wardrobe. Head coverage can come in the form of a hood or a cap. While a hood will certainly provide greater insulation, I find that the neck and face constriction is undesirable for swimming. I much prefer a cap which can allow for free range of motion of the cervical spine as well as not altering my breathing technique by keeping my face free. To improve visibility you can add a standard brightly coloured swim cap over top of your neoprene cap.
Surfer’s Ear is not just for surfers. I found this out after a number of underwater photoshoots in the cold waters of Georgian Bay and Glacial Rivers in British Columbia. The cold water acts as a mechanical irritant to the external ear canal and can lead to inflammation and narrowing which can predispose to middle ear infections. There are a variety of ear plugs on the market, but Surf Ears are definitely industry leaders. They come with a handy lanyard between the colour coded left and right ear plugs, and are constructed to allow sound in while keeping the water out.
Dry Robe, Change Robe
When it comes to open water swimming, sometimes the time in the water is the easiest part. You are going to have to consider getting in and perhaps more importantly getting out — it’s time to consider your exit strategy. Having a warm change robe waiting on the beach when you get out can be a great way to stay warm and help you change out of your swim gear while maintaining some public decency. In colder weather I would favour a DryRobe for maximal protection but as you get into your 3/2 or spring suit — you can switch to a towel robe comfortably.
For those of you interested in getting into open water swimming, there are a number of great community organizations and online training videos. I’ve included a short list below which is by no means exhaustive and a quick google search of your local area will help you find your tribe in no time!
- LOST Swimming Group
- GLOW Swimming Group
- Total Immersion Open Water Swimming Technique
- The Swim Guide
- NOAA Water Temperature Great Lakes
If you are going to strike out independently, stick to supervised swim areas. For the more adventurous, remember to always swim with a buddy, and maintain visibility to water crafts through the use of a swim buoy and brightly coloured swim cap. Open water swimming is a different beast than your monotonous laps at your local pool, so remember to know your limit, and swim within it. Whether you are a triathlete, swimmer, surfer or someone who just wants to get some exercise in the water, this summer is your opportunity to get out safely and enjoy our natural environment.
Lucas is an orthopaedic surgeon, accomplished freediver and triathlete, and photographer. He was born and raised in Ontario and studied at Queen's University and the University of British Columbia. Lucas is the co-owner of Surf the Greats along with his partner Antonio. Find him on Instagram.