Open Water Swimming Tips for Triathletes:
Overcoming Your Fears
Open water swimming presents some very real fears among
triathletes. These steps will help overcome some of
Hazen Kent -
and concerns related to open water swimming are very real.
The most obvious reason being, most triathletes complete
training in the safety of a swimming pool complete with
lifeguards, walls on which to rest, lane ropes that calm
the water (and to grab if need be) and a shallow bottom on
which to walk leaving even the most timid swimmer feeling
safe and secure. In the open water these conveniences are
not always available, especially in the ocean. Yes, there
may be lifeguards on duty, but that doesn’t help much
when you are 50 yards offshore swimming in fifteen feet of
water and the lifeguard appears as a small red dot on the
horizon. Add to that the chance of rough seas and swells
breaking close to shore as well as the possibility of an
undertow or runout and its no wonder such fears exist.
Lakes are not as bad as the ocean and tend to be a bit
calmer, but you still have to keep an eye out for boaters
(and critters) and be sure to swim in designated areas.
understand, I am not trying to add to anyone’s existing
fears of swimming in open waters. But for me to say, "you
have nothing to worry about, swimming in the open water is
a piece of cake” would
be a lie. It can be a wonderful experience but you must be
aware of your surroundings and practice safe swimming.
will discuss some tips and suggestions for training and
racing in the open water that may help you focus less on
your trepidations and more on your performance!
get to it!
Out There in the Open Water and Practice, Practice,
Practice – As obvious and cliché as this may sound,
it really is the best way to get used to swimming
in open water. And you will learn very quickly that
swimming in open water is much different than in a pool.
For one, there is no thick black line running along the
bottom of the ocean or lake to help guide you as you swim.
Unless the water is crystal clear, you will have to lift
your head to "sight" or see where you are going.
And you will probably take a swig or two of water during
your swim. So the more you hit the open waters to swim,
the better the results.
your Brain…Safety First – Yea, yea,
yea…safety first…no kidding! And you are right. It
seems we are always preaching safety. Unfortunately, many
drowning accidents in open bodies of water are often
easily preventable. Folks, use your head and leave your
ego at home. Don’t swim alone in an open body of water
unless there is a lifeguard on duty or you have a friend
to accompany you. If you are swimming under the watchful
eye of a lifeguard, let him/her know your plans and where
you will be swimming. If you are planning on swimming in
the ocean and the seas are rough…don’t bother. It
won’t make you a tougher swimmer, chances are the race
conditions will not be that extreme, and the bottom
line… it may save your life! If you are swimming in a
lake, swim in a designated area and swim along the
shoreline if possible. Swimming straight out towards the
middle of the lake will put you right in the middle of
"motorboat" territory. And the boaters will not
be looking for you. Plus, swimming along the shoreline
will allow you to choose a comfortable depth in which to
the Waters – whether it is just before the start of
a race or you are out for a training swim, always test the
waters and water temperature. In a race situation, I
recommend getting in the water and warming up prior to the
start. Get a feel for the water and do some warm-up
strokes. If you are going out for a training swim, make
sure the water is safe to swim in. Obviously if you are
swimming in a public area, there should be no problems.
But in areas where you are swimming at your own risk (with
a friend of course!), familiarize yourself with the waters
and stay close to shore. If you are training and you are
wearing a wetsuit, make sure the waters are not too warm.
It is easy to overheat when wearing a wetsuit. If the
water temperature is above 80 degrees, I recommend
swimming without one. By contrast, if the water feels too
cold, take some caution. Obviously, a wetsuit helps to
create warmth in cooler waters. But for folks swimming in
the Northeast, Pacific Northwest and Canada, the water
temperature can be dangerously cold, even in the summer
months. So again, be careful. If you plan on training in
unsupervised waters, I suggest you purchase an underwater
thermometer to take with you. You can usually pick one up
at a pool supply store or a larger sporting good store.
Simply hold it underwater for a couple of minutes and you
will know the exact temperature of the water before you
Your Sighting – As previously mentioned, you will
not have a thick black line running along the bottom of
the ocean or lake to help guide you in a straight line.
You must learn to lift your head and sight certain points
in order to stay on track. If you are out for a training
swim, you will want to look for various land markers. It
may be a tall tree, a water tower, or the top of a
building, something that you can see each time you lift
your head to look forward. In a triathlon, there will be
orange markers floating in the water outlining the swim
course. Prior to the race, get in the water and practice
sighting these markers during your warm-up.
Faith in Your Training and Your Stroke - It is not
uncommon for all of us to get a little panicky during an
open water swim. We get so used to swimming in a nice
clear pool that we tend to "freak" a little when
we realize we can only see a few feet in front of us! And
as a result, we tend to lift our head and check our
position much too often. Unfortunately, the more we look,
the more disruptive we are to our own stroke and pace.
This will not only physically wear you out, but it can
mentally tire you out as well. My word to you is – RELAX
and have faith in your training and your stroke. You
should be able to swim 5-7 strokes before lifting your
head to cite without seriously straying off course.
the Bubbles –During the swim portion of a triathlon
(and unless you are the lead swimmer) learn to spot the
"kicking" bubbles from swimmers that may be in
front of you. Spotting someone in front of you from their
kick is just one more way to keep you swimming straight
without lifting your head to sight. NOTE: One word of
caution, do not rely solely on these folks. Always keep
track of the orange markers as well. It is possible to be
led off course by the swimmers in front of you. This is
another good reason to get out there and TEST THE WATERS.
Check the visibility of the water. If you see others
warming up, swim close to them, and practice spotting the
bubbles from their kick.
Bilateral Breathing – Breathing on Both Sides: If
the swim course is an open rectangle whereby you swim out
for a short distance then head left or right along the
shoreline then back in again, you can use the shoreline as
a means of marking your position. However, this may
require that you breath to a particular side that may be
uncomfortable. So practice breathing on both sides during
your freestyle swim training. Also, breathing on both
sides will keep your stroke in balance and allow you to
swim straighter for more strokes. During your swim
training, practice breathing every three strokes. This
will force you to breath on both sides. If you are
uncomfortable at first, use fins or a pull buoy until you
develop a feel for this.
Advantage of the Draft: Drafting during the swim
portion of a triathlon is legal. And placing yourself
within a pack of swimmers of similar experience and speed
can prove beneficial to your swim performance and overall
triathlon performance. There are actually two ways one can
draft off another swimmer. One is swimming directly behind
a lead swimmer and the other is swimming in the wake of a
lead swimmer. And both can be very effective in an open
water swim. If you were to swim directly behind a swimmer
and close to his/her feet the result would be a
"pulling" effect (similar to that created by an
outboard motor on a speedboat). If you were to swim in the
wake of another swimmer, ideally you would position
yourself just off the shoulder of that swimmer. The
benefit being, an added push provided by the swells or
wake created by that lead swimmer. NOTE: One note of
caution. If you are swimming in a pack, things can get a
little rough. There will be swinging arms and kicking feet
and you might find yourself getting "wacked" by
accident. Try to stay relaxed and let the momentum of the
moving water push you along.
Start and Positioning - With the exception of a few
specific races, there are two ways you will start a
traditional triathlon…either wading in deeper water or
beachside which requires a running start. If you start
beach side or even in ankle deep water, you will quickly
discover you can only run so far in the water before it
becomes counterproductive. Unfortunately, you may still be
too shallow to start swimming! So what do you do? Many
triathletes will "dolphin" for several yards
until they are deep enough to begin swimming. "Dolphining"
refers to a swimmer taking a shallow dive or leap forward,
gliding for a few yards under water, then standing and
leaping out again until the swimmer is deep enough to
begin swimming. This can be very effective. And you will
probably find the more competitive and/or experienced
swimmers performing this technique. However, it is not
necessary. There is nothing wrong with walking into deeper
waters before swimming. Plus, if you are among a large
group at the start, most likely, you will not have the
room to dolphin. This too will be a result of how
competitive you want to be and your swimming background.
NOTE: One note of caution…if you do dolphin…DO NOT
DIVE DEEP! If you dive too deep you can seriously injure
yourself. Know the depth of the water where you are
swimming and keep the dive portion of the entry shallow.
Finally, regarding Positioning at the start - if you have
problems with the masses, then stay out of them! Place
yourself to one side of the group or the other prior to
Out Relaxed! I have read and heard others recommend to
start out your open water swim with a hard or "all
out" effort in order to put yourself in a particular
position or pack of swimmers and then settle into your
pace. And if you are competing in an open water race only,
I might agree. However, you are not competing in an open
water swim competition. You are competing in a triathlon.
After you complete your swim, you then have to jump on a
bike and cycle for 10, 25, 56 or even 112 miles. And how
you feel after the swim, especially regarding your heart
rate, will be a big factor in your overall performance.
Starting out too hard on the swim will cause your heart
rate to "spike" or shoot up to anaerobic levels,
leaving you in oxygen debt at the onset of the race and
forcing you to try and "catch your breath"
during the "settling in" period. And for most,
"settling in" never really happnes, regardless
of your swimming experience. I suggest building your speed
throughout the swim. Start out swimming long and relaxed.
Find your pace. And once you have found a good pace, then
you can turn it up a notch if you want. This will keep
your heart rate lower and leave you better prepared for
the bike ride.
for Open Water Swimming – As mentioned in the
beginning of this article, the best way to acclimate to
open water swimming is to go out in the open water and
practice! However, most of us do not have access to a lake
or ocean to perform our swim training. So, we must do our
training in a pool. Unfortunately, a pool will not really
give you that "open water" feel. This is due to
the fact that the pool will have lane ropes stretched from
one wall to the other designed to calm the waters.
However, there are a couple of things we can do in a pool
to prepare for the swim portion of our next triathlon. One
is to practice a drill I call the Water Polo Drill. And
the other, do a swim workout or two in your pool without
the lane ropes.
Polo Drill (or open-face swimming) – Have
you ever had the opportunity to watch a water polo match?
If you have, then you probably noticed the team members
spending most of the match swimming up and down the pool
with their face out of the water. Well, the Water Polo
Drill is based on this open-faced swimming. Basically,
this drill requires that you swim freestyle with your face
out of the water. This will help develop the necessary
strength to lift your head when sighting during your
triathlon without disrupting your freestyle rhythm.
However, it is not as easy as it may appear and can put
some stress on your neck and lower back. So feel free to
start out using fins until you feel comfortable enough to
swim without. And do not use a pull buoy.
In a 25 yard pool, swim 10 x 25’s - 12.5 yds with
your face out of the water, and 12.5 yds regular
freestyle. In other words, swim half the length with your
face out of the water and half regular freestyle. Take 15
seconds rest between each 25.When you begin to feel
comfortable with Drill Set 1, then challenge yourself and
move up to Drill 2.
Set 2: 10 x
50’s…swim 25 yds face out, 25 yards regular freestyle.
Take 20-30 seconds rest between each 50. Remember, this
can put added stress on your neck and lower back so feel
free to wear fins until you feel comfortable without.
Without Lane Ropes – Basically this means you are
training in the pool without lane ropes. This can create a
heck of a chop and will be the closest thing to an open
water swim you will experience in a pool environment.
Unfortunately, this may not be convenient or even
possible. However, if part of the pool is set up without
lane ropes, and there is no "free" swim going
on, do your workout in the open portion of the pool. NOTE:
One word of caution. Usually the area without lane ropes
is reserved for "free swim." If it is crowded
and kids are playing in the area, do not swim in the area.
Injuries could result from careless play. If it is
crowded, stick to the "lap swim" area.
you have it folks! I hope these steps help ease some of
your fears or frustrations regarding open water swimming
as you approach your next triathlon. Good luck!