Open Water Swimming

April 9, 2019

Anecdotally and statistically, the swim is often the most intimidating portion of a triathlon, especially for new triathletes.  In addition to swimming being the one event that many people are not as skilled at as the others, it often occurs in open water.  Anyone who has done open water swimming knows it is very different than training in a pool, and for that reason requires a different type of preparation and mentality.  Based on many years of competitive open water swimming, here are some things to keep in mind when diving in to your first open water swim, or when trying to improve the open water swimming you are already doing..



Start Slow.  

Beginning the race slower and getting comfortable in the water is usually a good idea for beginners.  Think negative splits, as you might during the run leg, where you want your pace to be faster at the end than it was at the beginning.  At the outset of a race, it is important to relax, get in a rhythm, get your breathing right, and find a speed that works for you. Begin too fast, and you may find yourself out of rhythm and even panicking before the first turn. At the outset of a race, if it is a common “wave start”, try not to be one of the first swimmers to hit the water in your wave. Instead, wait just a few seconds after the opening gun and gradually enter the water in a more relaxed pace.



Unless You Swim In Warm Water, Consider Using A Triathlon Wetsuit.  

Better buoyancy in the water, warmth in colder water, and better balance as you glide through your swim are all benefits of using a triathlon wetsuit.  You will see that most racers will wear a wetsuit if it is allowed, and in longer races a wetsuit can be a huge benefit because of the increased balance it gives you as you swim and the subsequent ability to kick a little less. You will find that your body floats more uniformly when you have a wetsuit on, and it can give you a bit of a safety blanket if you find that your confidence in open water isn’t where it should be. In short, a wetsuit can help improving your swim posture and positioning, and allow you to expend a little less energy. As a general rule, the more you spend on a wetsuit, the better range of motion and comfort you will have.  Be sure to practice with it a few times before race day.


Practice, Practice, Practice.  

Because one race day could be so different than the next, it is important to be prepared for nearly anything as you enter the water.  The best way to do that is to have done it before, and know how you respond to being in the open water. Doing so will give you a huge mental edge over people who have not practiced in open water


Ideally, you can practice by finding a group that will let you join them as they do open water swims in a local body of water, or simply get a few people together yourself.  You will want to wear the exact gear that you plan to use on the day of the race in order to get a good feel for it. You will also want to be familiar with everything from if your goggles fog to the way your triathlon shorts feel beneath your wetsuit.   As you practice, work on your sighting, which is the motion of looking up occasionally to get your bearings. Most racers who closely track their distances find that they actually swim quite a bit further than the advertised race distance because of the zig-zagging of open water swimming, and good sighting can reduce this effect.  Be sure to practice breathing off of each side of your body just in case, even if you have a primary side for breathing normally. The wind could be from either side on race day, and you want the flexibility to adapt to conditions. Finally, consider using brand new goggles in open water – they are far less likely to fog and have a glare than a pair that has seen the pool a few dozen times.


Combining some of these open water tips with good pool swim conditioning will put you in a position of being fast -- and more importantly, confident, in the swim on race day!


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