Because it's low-impact and highly modifiable, swimming is often touted as a safe exercise for almost everyone, including injured athletes, pregnant women and seniors.
While swimming does have a ton of physical and mental benefits, pools, lakes and oceans can present some risks, including drowning, lightning strikes and more. That doesn't mean you should fear the water. On the contrary, staying calm keeps you safer. Here, the safety rules that will help you avoid danger in and around the water.
Take Lessons if You Need To
If you're not a proficient swimmer — and especially if you have fear or anxiety around the water — don't wade in unprepared, says Samantha Caballero, CEO of Swim With Sam in Miami.
Instead, sign up for swim lessons. There, you'll learn safety skills such as how to roll over, float and tread water, in addition to technical guidance on strokes like freestyle and butterfly, says Jenny McCuiston, co-founder of Goldfish Swim School.
Never push or shove anyone near or in the water, even as a joke. "You don't know if they can swim properly," says Caballero. "And if you're not a strong swimmer yourself or a lifeguard, how can you rescue them?"
Plus, it's not safe to roughhouse near the concrete or hard cement surrounding the pool; it's all too easy for heads to hit the ground. As if that wouldn't be bad enough, if someone hits their head and falls into the water, he or she might not be able to get out.
That's another reason to walk, not run, around the deck, says Stacy Caprio, a certified Red Cross water safety instructor, former competitive swimmer and coach.
For overwhelming fears, see tip number one. If you experience minor moments of anxiety, however, do your best to stay calm. "The more relaxed you are, the easier swimming will be and the more likely you can float," says Caballero.
If it's the deep end that causes your heart to pump harder, consider this: It's not quite as far down as you think. "Just because you can't touch the bottom doesn't mean you're going to sink there," she says. Keep things in perspective by kicking to the wall, and consider the fact that you could bounce off the bottom and jump toward the side if you needed.
If you're above water, focus on your breathing to quiet your nerves, says Mike Lucero, head swim coach and president at Golden Road Aquatics in Burbank, California. Underwater, it can help to blow bubbles rather than holding your breath, Caballero says.
If you're excessively exhausted, overheated or freezing, stay out of the water altogether. Otherwise, arm yourself with techniques for what to do when you fatigue, like floating: Keep your head back and stomach up, relax and breathe, Caballero says.
Lucero makes sure all his newer swimmers find the ladder and wall and advises them to stay as close to the sides as possible. "That way, if they're losing their breath or panicking, they know right where to go," he says.
Just because you're submerged doesn't mean you're not sweating. Even though the water may keep your body temperature a bit cooler, you'll still sweat if you're working hard enough. Sip from a water bottle regularly to replenish your fluids, Lucero recommends.
But Skip Other Refreshments
If you're swimming for long enough — say, a 5K or 10K — you might want to refuel with an energy bar or a banana midway through, Lucero points out. Just get out of the water first. Eating while swimming poses a risk of choking. So, too, does chewing gum (not to mention the mess it makes if it falls out mid-stroke).
Watch the Weather
Stormy weather presents a huge danger for swimmers. H2O makes a perfect conductor, so if lightning strikes an open body of water, electricity spreads out over the surface. Lucero cancels his workouts if there's lightning or thunder even miles away and recommends you do the same: "We don't take a chance," he says. As a general rule, you should wait at least half an hour after lightning strikes before entering the pool again.
According to the National Athletic Trainer's Association, you shouldn't even swim indoors in a storm. Current can travel through wiring or plumbing, making pools, locker-room showers and even electrical appliances like hairdryers risky. Save your swim for a sunny day.
Don’t Just Dive In
Never plunge into the water unless you're sure it's deep enough and free of obstacles. "Many serious head and spine injuries happen when people dive headfirst into the water and hit the bottom," says Caprio. "You can become paralyzed or worse."
Once you're in the water, take note of diving boards, slides and similar features. Stay clear of the areas beneath them, lest another swimmer slam into you from above.
Find Safety in Numbers
If you're swimming with children, watch them constantly; drownings can happen extremely quickly and quietly. The best practice: Appoint a single adult to supervise without distraction, a so-called "water guardian," McCuiston says.
Even adults shouldn’t swim alone. Whether you’re at a public pool or a beach, find a buddy to go with you.
Read the Rules
Each swimming establishment has its own set of guidelines, McCuiston says. Read any rules that are posted or explained by the lifeguard — and follow them. "They're there to keep everyone safe," she says.