Outdoor Swimming – What to Wear……….Or Not!

The wealth of kit and clothing available to outdoor swimmers seems to grow by the day. It can often be overwhelming, particularly for those new to swimming outdoors. As a coach and year round outdoor swimmer I often get asked by new swimmers “what should I wear to swim outside?”

People always want a simple answer. Why not? I like simple answers and my simple answer to this is wear what you want. There are no rules, no rights or wrongs in this. Everyone’s different, what one person wants to get from the water can be different to the person stood next to them. How their body works is different, what they’re comfortable wearing (or not) is different.

I know that doesn’t answer their question outright. I’m happy to advise people on what may be good options for them but it is often a path of experimentation and exploration and certainly one which is personal to each individual. However as a starter for ten here’s a few points to think about when you’re deciding what to wear for your outdoor swim. 

How do you tolerate the cold?

Natural outdoor waters in the UK, even in the middle of summer, are cooler than the indoor swimming pools most people are used to. Part of your outdoor swimming journey will be learning how your body copes with those lower temperatures. If you get cold don’t be ashamed or scared to stick on some neoprene, an extra hat, some gloves and socks. If you can tolerate the cold well go for your life in just a swimming costume. Try not to feel pressure from those around you to look or wear the same. Their body is not yours.

What are you comfortable wearing?

Are you happy to show off lots of skin or would you rather cover up? Do you find wetsuits just a little too restrictive? Experiment with what’s right for you in the water. I know people who wear gym leggings and a long sleeve rash vest. I know people who wear as much neoprene as a scuba diver (me included sometimes). I know others who wear only their birthday suits.

What kind of swimming are you doing?

Long distance front crawl or a quick plunge? Are you swimming in balmy mid-summer or breaking ice over winter? Each are quite different beings.

If you’re heading for a quick plunge in a stream or pool do you need that full wetsuit or are you better off feeling the elemental power of nature on your skin? If you’re swimming a long distance do you need a layer of neoprene to help with some buoyancy and keep you warmer so you can swim for that little bit longer? That balmy mid-summer swim and the winter ice break may both only require a swimming costume but do you need to think about adding some neoprene gloves and socks to protect your extremities from the biting cold of sub 5C water in the winter?

How do you feel on the day?

Much of outdoor swimming is about learning what your body is capable of. That applies not only over time as you build fitness, tolerance to the cold and start to overcome fears but also how you feel each day. Some days you might be tired, have a cold, just generally feel a bit “meh”. Other days you might feel invincible, energetic, like you could take on the entire world. On those “meh” days your body might need a little more warmth, a bit of looking after, so maybe think about layering up. I’ve learnt from experience that on the “meh” days my body just needs a little more TLC and a little more clothing than on my invincible days.

So there you have it. Wear what works for you. Try and filter out what everyone else wears. Open water swimming is about you, do what’s right for you. The options I’ve offered above are certainly not exhaustive, there are lots of choices out there . Do your research, try stuff out and through experience you’ll find the perfect clothing choice for you.

Happy Swimming


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