Overcoming the Challenge of Swimming in Open Water
Swimming in open water can be a scary prospect, especially if you're not the most confident swimmer. If you come from a running or cycling background, you may feel like the swim is simply the race leg you must endure before transitioning to the main event, you’re not alone here.
In the latter part of your training plan, we recommend doing some training in your local lake, river or sea, to transfer your pool skills and fitness to the open water. We realise this isn't always realistic for everyone, but even one open-water swim can help boost your confidence and skill level.
When you train in open water, imagine yourself in your race scenario and what may be going through your mind then. Rehearse, keeping your thoughts away from distractions and staying focused on your pacing, technique, and the next marker.
Swimming with a friend, in a group or with a safety boat will keep you safe and offer opportunities to practice race skills. Familiarize yourself with your surroundings, check your entry/exit and ensure you are swimming in a safe water area. Be prepared with appropriate equipment for the conditions and water temperature. If you must swim alone, tell someone, and use a bright buoy that floats behind you while swimming to help others see you. It can double up as a flotation device if needed. Wear a brightly coloured swim hat too, so boats can see you.
Good vision is crucial when swimming in open water, so you can navigate effectively. Your goggles need to fit properly, stay in place and be as fog-free as possible. Find a pair that work well for you and use in training and racing, have a spare pair or two in your kit bag. For some people who wear glasses regularly, a set of custom goggles with lenses is a worthwhile investment.
There are many triathlon wetsuits on the market, and it is worth researching to find the one that best suits your requirements and budget. Getting the right size is key, it should not be so small that you feel cramped and uncomfortable. And not so big that it floods with water so that you carry extra weight around the course. If it's cold, wear two swim hats.
Practice Your Pre-Race Warm-Up
On race day, will your swim start in deep water or dry land? Practice this each time you start an Open Water Swim workout to help normalize race day. A few minutes of drills will get you focused on good stroke mechanics right from the start.
The primary goal of your swim training is to achieve a level where swimming your race distance in the open water feels normal. Taking your training to the open water in the last 4 to 8 weeks before your race will help your confidence and efficiency in river/lake/sea conditions.
Research has shown that IRONMAN athletes commonly swim several hundred metres more than they need to. You can add anything from 1 to 10 minutes to your swim time by zig-zagging through the course. Swimming in a straight line can be challenging particularly in choppy seas where your vision is obstructed. Focus on Swim Drills (particularly the kick on side drill) to improve your efficiency and technique as well as sighting regularly by looking up every 10 to 20 strokes. Don’t just follow everyone else blindly - they might be going the wrong way.
Lifting your eyes out of the water to see where you are going is vital for open water swimming. You may think that sighting is as simple as lifting your head to look forward but there’s more to it. The world's best triathletes and open-water swimmers can sight without disrupting the rhythm of their stroke or their body position in the water, and this is what you should aim to achieve.
Over several strokes you can build up a picture in your mind of what you are looking at and where you are going. It does depend on water conditions and visibility but normally you'd look to sight about every 10 strokes.
None of us like to admit it too freely, but swimming in open water can be pretty scary at times. There’s nothing to hold on to for safety and there are fish, weeds, shopping trolleys and goodness knows what else lurking beneath us. It’s certainly a far cry from swimming laps in the local leisure pool.
Practice is the best way to build confidence but the use of “cue words” can also help. These are like mantras that you repeat as you swim, examples being “relax”, “breathe”, “control” and “smooth”. Repeat one of these words on each stroke to help you focus on your technique, rather than losing your thoughts to external factors like fish and weeds!
Swim in a Group
Triathlon swim starts are often described as like being stuck in a washing machine. If it’s a mass start there can be white water everywhere, fists, elbows, feet, and no space to move. If you have the opportunity to swim in the open water with a group of your friends or club members you will get more comfortable with this aspect of racing in a social environment. Practice your race start, swimming in close formation, drafting and swimming around a buoy in a group.
- Swimming Round a Buoy
- When you approach a left turn buoy, use your left arm to pull across and under your body. Your right arm (recovery arm) also crosses over toward the buoy. Continue in this stroke until you have successfully rounded the buoy. Practice in both directions. If there is a large group at a turn buoy, go to the outside. Swimming in clean water will be faster and help you maintain your momentum
- Going too fast and blowing up or drafting off someone slow who drags you around to a slow time will leave you equally frustrated and annoyed.
- Swimming on someone’s feet is perhaps the best position for the best streamline and the most hydrodynamic gains. However, after training to improve your feel for the water and swimming smoothly and efficiently, race condition drafting can feel very alien. Sitting in bubbly kick water avoiding stabbing people’s heels can be distracting and make it tricky deciding if the pace is too fast or too slow.
- Sitting on swimmer’s hips can offer calmer, cleaner water and enable a more accurate idea of swim pace. Too fast, let them go, not quick enough, drop them and join a faster group going by.
- Practice in training to find out what works best for you.
12 Race Day Tips
- Don't Worry. If during your race you feel like you need to stop, simply flip onto your back and float. Raise one arm and a safety canoe will approach you and offer help. If you simply need a rest and can continue, then make this clear to the safety marshalls and ensure they don’t assist your forward motion.
- Tinted Goggles. Consider where the sun will be and how it may affect your sighting. If you’re swimming straight into the sun, it can be blinding. Try tinted or polarized goggles a few times in training before you use them on race day.
- Two Hats. Some races will have you in cold water conditions that can feel pretty icy and unpleasant. To stay warmer try wearing two latex swimming hats (the event hat on top), or one latex hat and a neoprene one underneath.
- Be Ready for the Cold. If you can, warm up in the water for at least five minutes before you race. Failing that, splash plenty of cold water over your face and down their wetsuit before the gun goes to alleviate the shock factor
- Check Your Markers. Standing at the shore, it can be easy to see where you’re planning to go and the landmarks or buoys, you’re aiming for. But, down at water level with your head only inches from the surface, these can suddenly disappear. Take the time to get in the water and look for your markers. They often need to be bigger and higher than you first thought.
- Washing Machine. If you’re worried about the washing machine start, then place yourself at the side of the swim-pack. This halves the number of swimmers around you and gives you space to move into if needed. If you want even more space, swim at a slight diagonal angle away from the pack, turn wide around the first buoy and then rejoin the pack once the swimmers are more spread out. You might end up swimming slightly further, but it’s worthwhile if it quells your fear.
- Race Start. Starting at the back of an OW start is not always a good idea, you might be surprised how congested it can be, and adding breaststrokers to the mix makes overtaking very hard. Grade your ability and race experience, starting too high can also lead to issues if swimming is not a strength. You may be driven off course by advancing packs of swimmers resulting in additional sighting with the need to navigate more frequently.
- And Breathe. Occasionally a fast race start, and the shock of icy water can cause you to hyperventilate, resulting in quick, shallow panic breaths. If this happens, start calm and easy breast-stroking and move away from the main pack. Your breathing will return to normal.
- Bubble Bubble. To avoid hyperventilation, remember to exhale properly as you swim. When the gun goes off at the beginning of a race, don’t set off at break-neck speed and forget to breathe. Focus on breathing out underwater as if you are sighing. If in doubt, think “bubble, bubble” underwater before you turn your head to breathe each time.
- Pace Yourself. Settle into your effective mid-race cruise pace is essential after the excitement of a swim start. It’s important not to swim too slowly and exit off the pace, but equally important to know when to calm down after the excitement of the start.
- Delayed Reaction. Understand that you may not always get a clear view of the buoy you’re aiming for. There is often a delay between what your eyes see and when your brain processes it. Get a glimpse, keep moving and wait for your brain to then tell you what your eyes just saw.
- Be Adaptable. Understand conditions and be able to change tactics and technique as they dictate. Arrive early and watch earlier waves swim, if possible, for clues about the water conditions can help your swim. Obstacles floating on the water will give you an idea of drift.
For more on race pacing and race nutrition you may be interested in reading the articles below.
Pacing For Triathlon Events
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