open water swimming

Swimming! It doesn’t have to be the necessary evil of Triathlon?

You have logged thousands of yards in the pool, hundreds of miles on the bike and more miles of running you can count and the big day is finally here! Race day!

As you stand at the cold waters edge among hundreds in a sea of black neoprene and brightly colored swim caps a fear you knew would come starts to overtake you. Dread.

Through sidewise glances and nervous shuffling you hope to communicate that you come in peace and wish to not be kicked in the head or beaten down into the cold, black darkness once the start gun goes off. “It is the shortest part of the race”, you murmur under your breath. “Just let everyone else go ahead” you remind yourself. What was that pro tip about sighting I watched last night? BAM! The gun goes off.

If this is you then you are not alone, the open water swim is among the top fears of anyone participating in a triathlon of any distance. Be it lack of swimming fitness, lack of experience in open water or just fear of the unknown there are a number of things that you can do to improve if not eliminate the dread that overtakes you at the beginning of what should be an awesome and well earned day!

BTW These are not listed in any particular order of importance unless one or more speak to you personally, I believe they are all equally important.

  1. Do not let a friend lend your their wetsuit if it not the right size for you! Wearing a wetsuit that is too big will not help you stay warm in the swim it will only fill up will water and weigh you down.  Also, don’t wear a wetsuit that is made for water skiing or surfing! These wetsuits are not designed for swimming long distances even a sprint distance triathlon!  Triwetsuitrentals.com will rent you a wetsuit two weeks before your event and only charge you about $45. With two weeks you can practice in your wetsuit and get comfortable swimming in it before race day! Check them out!
  2. Not practicing in open water before the day of the race! I know that the sport of triathlon takes up a lot of time, the endless training hours away from family and friends can be a strain on everyone (definitely a topic for another blog post) but getting to an open water session can be easier than you think. Here are a couple of ideas. First, do it on the weekend VERY early! By getting to a lake or reservoir  on the weekend you will avoid the boaters and jet skiers and can swim safely with little distractions. Take your family with you! Rent a paddle board and have your kids or spouse help guide you in the water this will involve your family and help to keep you safe.
  3. Not practicing sighting is a big problem. Unfortunate race organizers still haven’t  figure out how to get a black line painted on the bottom of the lake you are going to race in so they have decided to continue to put large brightly colored buoys on top of the water to help you know where to go. Sighting in open water is a skill and needs to be practiced, too much sighting takes a lot of energy but too little and you can be swimming off course. You want to sight like and alligator with your eyes just above the water. Practice sighting in every pool session. I have attached a very short clip here so you can see what effective sighting looks like. If you want more details then contact me and we can set up a private pool or open water session.
  4. Practicing in the open water before the race will help you to determine which direction you pull. Most swimmers pull or drift in one direction more than another. Let’s say you know you pull right then you need to take that into consideration in the open water. If the swim course is counter clockwise and you pull right you will constantly be course correcting and likely sighting more than you need to. Knowing you pull to the right it would be better to position yourself on the inside to the course thus using the mass of swimmers on your right to help keep you on the course. This segway’s me into my next tip…
  5.  Know your course i.e. race venue,which way the course is set, will you be swimming into the sun, etc. Showing up on race day and not knowing all of the above only adds unnecessary stress. Race organizers post the swim, bike and run courses on their website. If you are unsure of the course map contact them they should be more than happy to help you. Knowing if you will be swimming into the sun will help you decide what kind of goggles to bring. Oh and bring more than one pair, you never know how mother nature might throw you a curve ball with a cloudy day.
  6. Still, can’t get to a lake then practicing in a pool is the next best thing. Some master programs have open water swim practices where they move out the lane lines and go through drills to help replicate the feel of an open water swim. Also practicing in the pool with your wetsuit before the race is a not a good idea it is a great idea! BTW if the wetsuit does feel like it fits you right in the pool the wetsuit fairy isn’t going to magically make it all better on race day!  Your wetsuit will feel tight but the more you wear it the more you will get used to it. But if it really isn’t working out for you either find another suit or make sure you are putting it on correctly.
  7. If the swim is the shortest distance why should I spend so much time on it in my open water training? I believe in the quality of training, not quantity, yes the more you train in the open water the better but using the time you do have to swim in open water by focusing on sighting, relaxing in your wetsuit and swimming a mock race course helps. If the open water swim is the biggest obstacle you face in your desire to become a good triathlete then you do need to spend more time on it… in the beginning. In time and with some races under your belt it will become more familiar to you and less of a dread.
  8. Lastly, focus on the mental part of the swim during your practices in the pool and open water. At the pool don’t be afraid to circle swim with total strangers when your lane partner goes by and you can feel their splash or feel the water from their kicking think about how that will translate in the race, you don’t stop you just keep going. When you are practicing in the open water and you get a mouth full of water instead of stopping see if you can just cough it out with the next exhale. Goggles keep getting water them or fogging up get a new pair and use a small spray bottle of diluted baby shampoo before swim to wash them out so they don’t fog up.

Here is a great drill I use in my coached open water swim sessions.  After putting on your wetsuit,goggles and swim cap enter the water about waist deep and completely dunk under the water anywhere from 3-10 times making sure you blow bubbles out when you are under the water.

Doing this will help relieve the initial shock of the temperature of the water even if it considered warm it will still take your breath away. After dunking swim ten slow relaxed strokes out and then ten back sighting every four strokes. Repeat this again. Then swim twenty stronger strokes what you would do in the race and twenty back again sighting every 6-8 strokes. Repeat this again.

At this point, you should be ready to start. During your open water swim session count your strokes to ensure you are sighting every 8 or so and also use your stroke count to do some speed drills as well. Speed drills in the water are similar to those you would do in running only by stroke count, not time or distance. Your speed drill can go something like this: 10 strokes hard 20 strokes easy repeating 10 sets. It can be any number of strokes you feel that you can maintain for 10 sets then settle back into your regular rhythm. Don’t forget to sight!

If you are really a beginner you can continue to use the shoreline in your drill swimming twenty strokes out hard and twenty  strokes back to the shore easy and using the shore to rest.

Most important be safe out there! Find a safe time of day and area of the open water that has as little motorized traffic as possible. Swim in a lifeguarded area if available and with a swim buddy or a friend in a SUP or kayak.

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