Open Water vs Pool Swimming: Which One Is Harder?

is open water swimming harder than a pool

Those of you who are strong swimmers but haven’t yet tried open water swimming before have some burning questions you want answered. Some common questions are: is open water swimming harder? What are the major differences between pool swimming and open water swimming? What are the pros and cons of pool vs open water swimming?

There are several differences that make swimming outdoors much harder. Aside from the obvious difference in temperature, you also have to deal with water clarity, water chop, swimming with a wetsuit on, dealing with changes in the weather, possible brushes with marine life, etc. However, you also get treated to beautiful scenery and avoid swimming in a pool full of chemicals, though you need to take care to avoid swimming in polluted waters. These factors make open water swimming harder, but also makes it much more interesting.

In this article, we will compare the experiences of open water swimming to swimming at a pool. After learning about their pros and cons, you can make an informed decision as to whether you want to do one over the other, or both if you’re adventurous enough.

Open water swimming vs. pool swimming

Water temperature

You can easily go swimming at an indoor swimming pool year-round because they regulate the water temperature so that it’s the same no matter what season it is. The same cannot be said about swimming outdoors.

The biggest shock swimmers face when transitioning to outdoor, open water swimming is how freezing cold the water is without the appropriate gear. A period of acclimatization is required for you to perform at the same level you’re used to.

Due to how cold it is outside, most open water swimmers wear lots of insulating gear. That means full body wetsuits, gloves, booties, swim caps or hoods, the whole shebang. You’ll want to cover up as much of your skin with insulating neoprene gear so that you don’t get hypothermia.

Neoprene swimwear is more effective the thicker it is, so for example a 5 mm wetsuit provides greater insulation than a 3 mm one. Depending on how cold the water temperature is, you may want a 5 mm or even 7 mm wetsuit, with correspondingly thick gloves and booties.

Some open water swimmers just go swimming in their regular swimwear. They like the cold shock that the temperate waters give them, saying it makes them feel alive and it feels exciting. Are they onto something or are they out of their minds?

Studies on cold water swimming have found that cold water can give you physical and mental benefits once you adapt to the cold. It was found that cold water swimming helped people handle stress, reduce blood pressure, reduce insulin secretion and resistance, and even improved mental health.


Another major difference between open water swimming and pool swimming is water clarity. Swimming pools are guaranteed to have great water visibility, but the water outdoors can be murky.

Murky water is a serious issue if you are not familiar with the area because it can obscure dangerous objects like sticks or sea defenses that can be hazardous.

With that said, murky water does not necessarily mean the water is polluted. Some of the best open water swimming locations are murky, but they are also packed with minerals that could have health benefits for your skin.

Water chop

Another luxury of the swimming pool is the guarantee of calm waters thanks to the overfill drains that take waves out of the water when people are splashing around. If you’re swimming indoors, you don’t have to worry about the changing weather conditions either.

The net result is that swimming in a pool has less turbulence tossing you around as you’re trying to glide through. This is ideal if you’re training to perfect your swimming technique in a safe environment. Swimming against currents is tiring and is a major safety hazard.

Although open water swimming can sometimes be calm, the swimming condition is at the mercy of the elements. The main concerns are wind and swells. Choppy waters can throw off your stroke rhythm and tire you out quickly.

For some open water swimmers, they see this as a challenge and find the chaotic nature of outdoor swimming to be exciting. However, it is also a legitimate safety concern, so consider cutting your outdoor swimming session short if you don’t think you can handle it.


Swimming at a local pool is kind of like running on the treadmill for runners. It’s so much more interesting to be outdoors than tediously swimming/running laps with the same old sights. There’s only so much of staring at the same four walls and same painted line before you go insane.

This is where open water swimming shines and indoor swimming cannot keep up. The outdoors is a constantly changing environment, and is endlessly fascinating. It can also be breathtakingly beautiful, especially if you’re swimming at the crack of dawn. The change in scenery can help you break out of the monotony of swimming laps and help you restore your love of swimming.

Chemicals and pollution

What’s keeping the pool water so nice and clear? A bunch of chemicals, namely chlorine, is added into pool water to eliminate bacteria and algae and keep the water safe to swim in.

Though chlorine is safe to swim in, constant exposure to it can lead to side effects like dry and irritated skin and hair. Breathing in chlorine fumes is also known to cause respiratory issues, with many swimmers suffering from asthma during their time swimming. However, the asthma goes away once they stop swimming.

Open water swimming is not necessarily any better in terms of water cleanliness. In fact, it’s much worse. The ocean is full of bacteria which can lead to eye, ear, or skin infection if you have any exposed wounds.

There is also the issue of pollution in the water. You don’t know what kind of chemicals have been dumped into the water, though there may be government websites or apps where you can check local bodies of water in your area.

Swimming in saltwater can also lead to many side effects that are similar to chlorine, such as dry and irritated skin and hair. No matter where you decide to swim, make sure you are thoroughly rinsing yourself afterwards to get rid of the salt and chlorine that is lingering on your body.


If you are not confident in your swimming skills, then you should stay swimming at your local pool. Many people think they are confident swimmers, but as soon as they cannot see the bottom of wherever they are swimming, their confidence disappears.

You may have to do a few warm up runs where you are still wearing a flotation device to give you peace of mind until you are used to the new environment.

Is open water swimming harder?

If we are comparing which of these two types of swimming is more difficult to do, I would say open water swimming is harder hands down.

Almost everything I described about open water swimming – from the cold temperatures, choppy waters, changing weather, low water clarity, the necessity of wearing thick, insulating swimwear – makes it harder to do than swimming at a pool.

By contrast, swimming at a pool seems downright luxurious. You have clean, visible water, lifeguards watching your back, regulated water temperature, no fear of a sudden change in weather or choppy waters, easy access to land, washrooms, potable water, food, washrooms, etc.

Not to mention, the transition from swimming at a pool to open water swimming is brutal. It takes a long time to acclimate to the new swimming environment. The sudden shock of the cold water may be detrimental to your heart health in the short term.

Plus, the risk of dying is significantly higher for swimmers in the open water than indoors, so any potential benefits may not be worth the risk for the risk-averse. Whichever one you prefer, I think it’s safe to conclude that open water swimming is harder than at a pool.