Triathlon Open Water Swimming Tips

The First Time Is Nerve Wracking!

Butterflies in the stomach, shaky legs, a constant anxious shivering even though I was warm.

This is how I felt right before my first open water swim and it was the most intimidating part of any triathlon I had ever raced in.

I was aware that swimming in the pool and out in open water was entirely different – I just didn’t know how different.

Truth be told, I brought it on myself. I have this painful habit of jumping right into things without a second thought – a kind of “learning by doing” mentality. My very first race ever was a full marathon in San Diego. Up to that point, my longest run was about eight miles. A little preparation would have saved me a lot of discomfort.

That said, I am becoming a big fan of preparation and planning. I encourage anyone planning to race in a triathlon with an open water swim for the first time to do a little research before “jumping right in”. Here are a few tips that can help with your open water swim and possibly ease some of those pre-swim jitters:

Triathlon Open Water Swimming Tips

Practice By Doing…

By far, the best preparation for your first open water swim triathlon is to actually train in open water and get comfortable with it – preferably in the same bit of water where the race will occur. As mentioned, open water swimming is vastly different from pool swimming.

Everything about the pool swimming experience is designed with safety and security in mind. There are lifeguards on duty, there are lane markers to guide you and the lane dividers and pool edge are never far away. In the swimming pool it’s warm and the water is clear.

With open water swimming, your safety and comfort is often up to you. Add lots of hostile flailing arms and legs, waves and chop crashing in your face during a breath, and floating debris into the mix – it’s small wonder the newest of us and still some veterans get a little anxious before the open water swim portion.

So, the best way to ease your mind is to experience these conditions firsthand and learn to deal with them with composure. After all, with a little experience under your belt, the open water swim becomes very rewarding – a kind of man/woman against nature, survived the elements sort of thing.

Swim Safely…

It may seem like common sense, yet drownings are the sixth leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Statistics show that nearly ten people die everyday in non-boat related drownings.

One of the best ways to prevent accidental drownings is to never swim alone or at least be supervised. Even if you are an extremely gifted swimmer, something unexpected can always happen and render you helpless. It may be inconvenient to line someone up for regular swim training or drag your pal or spouse out to keep an eye on you, but it is all important.

Don’t swim where there is potential boat traffic or in rough water where it may be difficult to see you. Waves as little as a foot high can effectively hide a swimmer. Boaters will not be looking for swimmers in the water away from shore.

If you have no choice but to swim alone, swim along the shore in shallow water as opposed to straight out from shore and back. This will at least keep you visible from shore and out of boating traffic. If you tire, you can always stand up and rest.

Wear highly visible swim gear as a precaution and know your limits.

Look for and pay attention to any warning signs and markers pertaining to marine life, boating traffic, lifeguard supervision, wind conditions, rip tides and surf conditions, etc.

Practice Your Navigating…

There will be no black lines along the bottom or lane dividers to keep you straight in an open water swim. You’ll have to incorporate a “head raise” into your stroke and sight markers to keep you on line. If you don’t master this you just may end up swimming a lot more than you have to.

Take care not to look up too much as this will sap precious energy and slow you down. It depends on the swim coarse, number of turns, water conditions, but looking up every four to six strokes is a good rule of thumb.

Following the pack or at least the swimmer in front of your is a good navigational aid and gives you the benefits of swim drafting as well. However, don’t rely on this technique alone. The swimmer in front of you may be directionally challenged and could lead you astray.

If you are able to swim the coarse before the race, scout out landmarks as a back up to the race markers. A tree, building or light pole can be easier to pick up than a buoy. Swim the coarse in a breast stroke or any other relaxed stroke and have a look around. Forward landmarks are good for locating turns, but also look for landmarks to your sides if possible.

Side landmarks are good for judging distances along the coarse and if these seem too close or too far, it can be a clue you’re veering off coarse.

If you do end up veering off coarse, don’t make a drastic turn to get back on the path you were supposed to be on. Make small adjustments and aim for your intended destination such as a turn marker or water exit. The shortest distance to where you want to go is always a straight line. If you were to make an abrupt turn to get back on your intended path, you’ll only end up swimming more distance.

Swim In The Pack Or Out?

As an open water newbie, do you like to swim more relaxed or amongst dozens of flailing arms and legs? I know some people who just love the violent mosh pit that often takes place at some swim starts. To me, that’s just weird. I find a more relaxed swim conserves my energy for the bike and run.

If you decide you don’t want to be among the pack, stake out a place in the back or off to a side. If the coarse is a loop, the outer side is a better choice because of the turns. If you find yourself on the inner side, you’ll gradually work your way into the pack at the turns since everyone will want to get close to the marker at the turn. If you’re on the outside, you can always be on the outside at a distance you decide.

And, by swimming on the outside, it doesn’t mean you swim a whole lot more distance. On a 1500m loop coarse, if you stayed about five meters to the outside the whole way, you’d only add about 30 meters to your swim distance. A little more than one swimming pool length.

That concludes my tips on how to prepare for your first open water triathlon swim. I’ll leave you with the following ten minute video that provides additional techniques and some good gear suggestions.

Take care, best of luck and have fun…

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