Swimming in open water requires a specific skill set
By Virginia Betz
To a strong swimmer, a large expanse of water in a natural setting must be irresistibly inviting, particularly in contrast to the usual repetition of laps in a single lane of a concrete pool (probably shared with another swimmer). Open-water swimming is a draw for the recreational swimmer who just wants a change of scene, but is also becoming more popular among amateur and professional athletes who train for endurance events, such as triathlons and channel crossing.
Locations for open-swimming near Phoenix
Many municipalities prohibit swimming in natural water features within their boundaries. Water quality could be an issue and, most likely, there is an unwillingness to incur the inevitable expenses associated with habitual public use. In Arizona state parks, visitors are permitted to swim anywhere, but finding a place suitable for a real long swim may not be so easy. The best choices for open-water swimming near Phoenix are large lakes/reservoirs with developed recreational facilities. Many have specially designated areas for swimmers (no motorboats or jet skis) and include safety features, like platforms and buoys, along with other amenities, such as picnic areas and lavatories. Information about lake conditions (temperature, wind speed, etc.) can be obtained before planning your visit. A few destinations appropriate for swimmers of average skill are listed below.
Part of the City of Phoenix Parks System, Lake Pleasant Regional Park surrounds a very large lake formed by Waddell Dam. The Lake has several coves that are “wake-free,” and, thus, safe areas for swimmers. In Castle Creek Cove, it is possible to do a three-mile swim from the mouth of the cove to the tip and back. A day pass is required to enter the park; it is $6 per car and $1 if entering by bike or on foot. Map and more details at maricopa.gov/parks/lake_pleasant
Bartlett Reservoir is 22 miles east of Carefree. Formed by a dam of the same name on the Verde River, the area is notable for its spectacular scenery. The Reservoir is located in the Cave Creek Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest, so vehicles need to purchase a $6 pass to park at the facility. Rattlesnake Cove, off-limits to motor boats, is the spot for open-water swimming inside the buoy line. The undeveloped beach front slopes gradually down to deeper water. Windy conditions often prevail in the area and can produce choppy water. Map and info at fs.usda.gov/tonto
Canyon Lake, 15 miles up the Apache Trail from Apache Junction, is part of the Superstition Wilderness area of the Tonto National Forest, Mesa Ranger District. The Boulder Creek Recreation Area, off limits to motorized watercraft, is most recommended for open-water swimming. It is possible to swim a one-mile loop non-stop. As for all Tonto sites, a $6 parking pass is needed. Info at fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto
If higher elevations appeal as the hot summer months approach, Lyman Lake at 6,000 feet is the largest lake in the White Mountains along the Little Colorado River. Because the Lake is so expansive (1,500 acres), it is popular for boating, but the west end of the Lake is a buoyed-off, no-wake zone great for swimming. Lyman Lake, 17 miles north of Springerville, is part of the Arizona State Parks system and has a $7 entrance fee for vehicles and $3 for individuals/cyclists. Map and info at azstateparks.com/parks/lyla
The special challenges of open-water swimming
Open-water swimmers are exposed to greater extremes of temperature than pool swimmers. Usually, the issue is cold. A warm body rapidly loses heat in cold water through conduction, and exercising in the water will accelerate heat loss due to convection. According to active.com, responses to cold include “shivering, constricting blood vessels, increasing metabolism, increasing urine volume, increasing lactate production and decreasing VO2max,” all conditions guaranteed to diminish athletic performance. Wetsuits permit longer stays in the water but detract from the sensual experience of the water most recreational swimmers desire.
Overexposure to the sun can also be a particular hazard for the open-water swimmer who, having committed to a long swim with no opportunity to rest, neglects to consider that, even in cool waters, parts of the body can be subject to sunburn.
In choosing a destination, the open-water swimmer will presume a straight line trajectory, but swimming in a straight line is easier said than done. Most swimmers take breaths on the same side every few strokes, which tends to cause the swimmer to veer to one side. Correcting for this tendency is easy when lap swimming, but for open-water swimmers, frequent stopping to adjust direction really slows down the swimmer’s progress and wastes energy. Ideally, open-water swimmers should adopt a symmetrical stroke with bilateral breathing. It also helps to learn to keep a low head position while taking frequent looks to stay on course. Learning such new techniques requires practice.
The lure of open water can also be a great disadvantage if a swimmer gets in trouble and there is no one nearby to note their distress. Even if there is a lifeguard on an ocean or lakeside beach, the surveillance of wide, open spaces is difficult. Take care not to underestimate distances or overestimate your swimming prowess. If the goal is to cover a significant distance, advise companions of your intentions; inexperienced open-water swimmers shouldn’t stray far from fellow swimmers or from a landing place.
Persons desiring to take up open-water swimming in a serious way ought to consider professional coaching in order to learn the special techniques appropriate for long-distance and/or competitive swims. With training and experience, swimmers can enjoy open-swimming in a greater variety of water contexts.