Maybe you signed up for your first sprint triathlon this summer or you’re dipping your toes in a Swim Across America event. Either way, open water swimming is a whole new ball game for swimmers of any skill level. It is intimidating enough to be in a pool with dozens of swimmers, arms and legs flailing. I was a late bloomer for swimming – learned for the first time at age 26! Since then I’ve really fallen in love with swimming as a year-round cross training activity alongside my half marathon and marathon training. As part of that love, I’ve done many triathlons and open water swim races the past several years to switch it up and get out of the a running rut.
That said, if you don’t panic for the first 30 seconds of a swim race or triathlon, have you even done one? I’ve talked to many athletes and 99% of them have some sort of race start panic in the water. It is normal, expected and part of the experience. Check out open water swimming tips below to minimize the panic at the beginning of the race:
Embrace sharing a swim lane at the pool
I know, sharing a lane is the WORST but every time I have to suck it up and squeeze myself between the center line and the lane marker I take a moment to appreciate how realistic it is to a race setting. The washing machine water, constantly monitoring my position so I don’t clobber another swimmer, and generally tighter setting. It is a controlled setting to practice rougher waters.
Practice closing your eyes and sighting in the pool
Do this one when you’re the only person in a lane. If you’ve ever tried closing your eyes while swimming, you may notice you have a tendency to veer in a certain direction. After pushing off the wall, take a few strokes eyes closed then pop your head up out of the water to see how far the next wall is, then back into eyes closed swimming. This will imitate the experience of not seeing anything in lake or ocean water while trying to sight off of land or a course buoy. Sighting for the first time in an outdoor setting is not advisable. It takes practice to figure out how to not crane your neck painfully.
Big Inhale Big Exhale
I’ve learned throughout my yoga teaching journey how significant breathing is to the nervous system and its calming affects. It isn’t just eastern ideology, there have been studies to prove that conscious breathing is incredibly beneficial to perception of calmness and control. Before you dive in and in your first few strokes, consider focusing your inhale and exhale. With the scramble of the start, it is easy to get into a chaotic headspace. Slow, intentional breaths will bring you back to earth and prepare you to swim with confidence.
Start with Breast Stroke
Adrenaline will be pumping at the starting line and swimming in open water is like being blindfolded and deaf while trying to navigate a course among other erratic swimmers. Every swim race or triathlon I start with about 5-10 strokes of breaststroke. I breath every stroke and it is easy to sight in this position. It is enough time to get settled, allow the panic attack to pass, and position your body correctly. Once the rush to start has subsided, transition into freestyle to pick up the speed. There is no right or wrong way to swim in these settings, it is all about keeping yourself safe and in control.
Salt Water vs Fresh Water
One interesting aspect of open water is how the body of water impacts time and experience. Ocean may seem daunting for a swim, but the salt water actually allows you to go faster as you’re more buoyant on the surface. Lakes seem calmer and more beginner friendly, but they’re often slower swimming courses. Ironman Texas 70.3 takes place in a protected bay, so you have the benefit of floaty salt water and protected from large waves. Do your research in advance and set expectations of timing and performance based on different environments.
Find local tri club that does open water swim practice
Before my first Half Ironman, I was desperately trying to find a place to practice open water swimming. You don’t want the first open water swim to be on race day. There are many kinds of training and triathlon clubs that offer group swims, and I managed to find a triathlon group that allowed single drop in sessions at a lake nearby. The important thing is to always go with a friend or group in an open water setting. Many folks even had their own strap on buoy for visibility if you’re swimming around boats.
Consider your gear
The first turn of my first open water swim race – BOOM – I was looking straight into the sunrise. Sighting almost impossible. I never swim with tinted goggles in a pool setting, but man did I envy the folks that planned ahead with their gear. It seems overkill, but consider the time of day of the race and sun positioning to determine what type of goggles you may need and anticipate blind spots along the route. Depending on the quality of lake or ocean, also consider a dark swimsuit. I wore a light green one piece and it was stained brown on the inside lining from the lake water. Another consideration is whether or not your race is wetsuit legal. If wetsuits are allowed, I always recommend them. It gives you more buoyancy (speed), safety (built in life jacket) and warmth. Some folks get claustrophobia inside of a wetsuit so plan ahead and test swimming in the pool or on a practice swim beforehand.
Assume you will be kicked
Assume you will take a beating in the first several meters of the race. This sounds worse than it is… but it is realistic of mass starts to have some element of swimming on top of one another. If you take a sports psychology perspective and walk through scenarios in your head of all the hiccups that could occur (goggles knocked off, gulp of water when trying to breath, someone kicking or punching) you will be able to come up with your next best move. Goggles knocked off? Flip on your back or grab a kayak and take 10 seconds to put them securely back on your head. Gulp of water? Switch to breast stroke and take a few sighting and breathing breaks. Punches and kicks? Sight on the buoy and spread out from the other swimmers.
Know your safety kayaks
Safety is the most important part of swimming outdoors. Most races will have a team of kayaks to support and provide aid. Don’t be afraid to use them! Most rules allow you to hang on a kayak as long as you are using them to propel yourself. Take a breather, have a moment to collect yourself and continue on. When I was blinded by the sunrise in a race, a kayak could see me struggling and told me to look at a particularly weird shaped bush to sight off of. Thanks, kayaker! They may also tap you on the shoulder as you’re swimming if you’re particularly challenged with swimming straight.
Although I’ve only been swimming a few years of my adult life, I feel like a very proud athlete that I have completed both a long distance 4K swim race and broke the 40min mark of the 1.2mi swim portion of my half ironman. Do you have any races on the calendar? Any other open water swim tips to add?
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2 replies on “9 Tips for Open Water Swimming”
One of these days, I hope to be confident enough to do an open water swim event.