Open Water Swimming Tips

Training for your first open water swim can be pretty intimidating. My first OWS was part of my first triathlon! That may not have been my best idea, but swimming has always been my sport. I was a little more worried about completing the bike on my dad’s old road bike that was way too big for me. Anyway…

I recommending getting familiar with open water swimming before just jumping into it in a race setting. Here are a few tips to get started practicing.

Pool Drills.

1. Swim with your eyes closed for a few strokes. This will help both your OWS skills and your general swimming skills. Do you drift right into a lane line when you can’t see the line on the bottom of the pool? That could mean you have an uneven stroke or kick. This could be trouble in an OWS, because you’ll spend a lot of time correcting your line. You can diagnose the source of your drift by kicking (without a board, face underwater, eyes closed) and then pulling with a a pull buoy. You’ll see that maybe you aren’t pulling evenly on both sides… Another benefit of this exercise is that it introduces you to swimming without being able to see well. It’s a way of mentally preparing for the plunge into potentially murky water.

2. Tarzan drills! Throw these into your regular training sets. For example, if you’re doing 4×100, make the 3rd 25 of every 100 tarzan style. I wouldn’t recommend more than 100-200 yds total of this in any given workout. This will help to make you comfortable with sighting.

3. Sighting in the pool. That’s right, start looking for objects you know are there. Bleachers, a light, the block at the end of a lane, the old guy in a tiny Speedo stretching at the side of the pool… whatever is there.

Practice in Open Water.

1. Contact your local US Masters Swimming Chapter and/or your local Triathlon Club. Ask if they do any open water swim clinics or practices. If you can’t find anything, you’ll have to plan it on your own. Don’t go alone! Even if you can’t find someone to swim with you, bring someone to hang out on shore. If you are looking for places to swim, ask your local Tri Club, or check out local races to see where they swim.

2. Have the right gear. Cap, goggles, and suit are the essentials (maybe minus the cap for those of you without a giant mess of curly hair). How cold is the water? How cold is the air? My general rule of thumb is the 120 degree rule. If water temperature + air temperature is less than 120, you better be wearing a wetsuit! That said, regardless of air temperature, if the water temp is in the low 60s or lower, I’d want one. Feel free to find your own limits – just don’t stay in cold water too long!

3. Safety. Having just a swim buddy and someone on shore doesn’t necessarily make you safe. There are other factors to consider. Is your OWS spot open to boat traffic? If that is the case, you need to make sure you are seen! I’d recommend towing a dive flag in areas that are heavy with snorkelers and divers, and a rescue can in all other areas.

4. Relax. Take your time to get comfortable with your surroundings. Are you swimming where there are waves, swells, currents, tides, fish, boats or swimmers? If there are breaking waves, I suggest diving under them until you’re out past them. When facing swells, I just suggest altering your breathing (be ready to alternate breathe!) so you aren’t inhaling swells.You can’t really fight currents, but you should swim against the current starting out, and with it coming back – at least when you’re just beginning. For the boat traffic, just be smart. Stay out of channels. Make sure you are alert, aware and looking for the boat. Make sure you can be seen! Salt water or fresh water? It doesn’t really matter, but it will be different than chlorinated pool water.

5. Try it out! Stay close to shore/the pier/wherever you entered the water. Take it easy. Don’t plan on the first swim to be a 1k swim. Practice swimming towards points on shore. As you get more comfortable, increase the time you spend swimming in open water.

6. Have fun!

Race Day

1. Be ready for the chaos that is an open water start. If you’re worried about all of the people, head to the back of the pack or far to the outside. This video, while hilarious, has some truth to it:

2. Know what the swim course looks like and what the buoys look like! It’s a lot easier to sight if you know where the course goes and what the course markers look like.

3. Relax and know that you are not the only first timer out there.

4. Watch waves before you. Note where people are running and where they start swimming.

5. If something goes wrong – don’t panic! Goggles get knocked off? Tread water for a few seconds, replace them, take some deep breaths, and move on when you are ready. If you need help, or even just a break, wave down a boater/kayaker/paddle boarder and hang on. In most races, as long as you’re not making forward progress with them, it’s completely legal to just hang on for a bit and get your bearings.

Post-Race

1. Revel in the awesomeness of what you just accomplished!

2. Think about what (if anything) went wrong. Use it as a learning experience so you can improve for the next ones!

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