The fears and concerns related to open water swimming are very real. The most obvious reason being, most triathletes complete their swim 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.
Please 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.
Below we 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!
So let’s get to it!
Get 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.
Sprain 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 swim.
Test 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 start=
Practice 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.
Have 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.
Follow 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.
Learn 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.
Take 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.
The 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 the start.
Start 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.
Drills 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.
Water 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.