January 19, 2021
Open water swimming is an essential skill for triathletes of all levels. In this article, Coach Ben shares his best open water swimming tips.
When I was in high school, I remember doing a race in my hometown of Auckland, New Zealand. It was a sprint distance race, so I had to swim 750m, ride 20km and run 5km.
As I started the bike, I was lapped by the recently crowned junior triathlon world champion, Nathan Richmond, who was already completing his first 5 km bike loop. I was not a good swimmer.
Fast forward 12 years and I came out of the swim with him in one of my last races as a pro. It was a nice feeling after working so hard for so long.
In that decade between races, I spent a lot of time swimming—up to 40km in some weeks. While most of that was in the pool, I spent significant time training in lakes, rivers and the sea.
In fact, in my later years, my pool times were comparatively better than what I was swimming in races, so my coach had me doing a lot of training in the open water to improve my open water specific skills. It worked!
Open water swimming is not something I was comfortable with for many years, and I know it’s something that many beginners struggle with when starting their triathlon journey. This article is for you.
Here are some tips that helped improve my open water swimming and my overall confidence. I hope they will help you too.
It may sound like common sense, but if you want to swim well in open water, you need to practise swimming in open water. Swimming is swimming, but there are many nuances to swimming in the ocean, rivers and lakes versus the pool.
Open water can be a sensory experience: waves and current, sun in your eyes, salty water, fish and seaweed. If you’re not familiar with all this when you toe the start line, it can cause anxiety and lead you to panic – the last thing you want to do.
The more you practise swimming in the elements, the more you become familiar and the better you will do on race day. Dedicate some training time, especially close to race day, to swim in race conditions; a lake, river or the sea.
Bilateral breathing, or breathing to both sides, is essential for a balanced stroke and performing well in open water. Open water throws up a range of conditions, so having the flexibility to breathe on both sides is a tremendous asset that will give you confidence in all conditions, and allow you to perform your best.
Most triathletes have a natural side they prefer to breathe. While that’s ok, it’s silly not to practise breathing to the other side. When the sun or swell are coming at you on the side you prefer to breathe; you’ll have the skill needed to change position.
In a race, you want to swim the most direct course possible. Swimming straight not only saves you time, but it also saves you energy that you can use later in the race. To do that, you need to be good at sighting to swim the most efficient line.
A big mistake many triathletes make is lifting their head too high. When you lift your head, your hips sink, and that creates resistance and slows you down. To sight effectively, you only want to raise your head enough that your eyes are out of the water.
This technique takes practise (and a clear pair of goggles), and eventually it will start to become second nature. Watch the Triathlon World Cup or SuperLeague athletes on YouTube for some great examples of this in action.
Early in my triathlon days, I made the mistake of selecting the wrong goggles several times. I wore clear goggles swimming into the sun, and I wore tinted goggles when it was still dark or raining. These are silly mistakes, but fortunately, they’re easy to fix.
Not all goggles are the same. Have multiple pairs of different types and select a suitable pair for the conditions you will race in.
Like in cycling, drafting makes swimming easier. Unlike cycling (in most races), drafting is legal in the swim. There are two primary positions that you can sit to benefit from the draft of a swimmer in front of you.
The first is on the hip.
The hip gives the best draft but is more complicated to execute. You also run the risk of annoying the swimmer you’re drafting and getting hit about a little.
The second is on the feet.
Drafting is very much a skill, and it takes significant practice and concentration to execute well. You can practice drafting in a pool or the open water with a friend or group. The pool provides a regularly accessible place to practice for most, but the open water provides real-world conditions. It is harder to draft in the open water because of water visibility, sun and chop.
Before you get in the water, look for indications of current. Anchored boats make this process significantly more straightforward, so that is a great starting point. Boats usually anchor from the front so the back of the boat will indicate the direction of the current.
Once you have a rough idea of which direction the current is coming from, it’s a good idea to swim offshore 50m – 100m as part of your warm-up and to confirm the current. Once offshore, float for a minute, and check the current is pushing you in the direction you expected.
With this knowledge, adjust your start strategy because the current will impact where you want to stand on the start line.
If you’re swimming counter-clockwise and the current is coming from the left, it would be a good idea to start on the left side of the start line knowing that as you swim out the current is pushing you away from the turn buoy. If you start too far right, you’re going to have to work significantly harder against the current to get to the buoy.
If you’re going to race with a wetsuit, it is best to practise with it. A wetsuit is incredibly buoyant and props you up in the water. They can also be restrictive and place pressure on your shoulders, especially if you don’t spend the time to put it on properly.
When you practise in your suit, you’ll familiarise yourself with how they feel and how you may need to adjust your stroke. It will also help you refine your process of putting it on and maximising your comfort while minimising your chafing risk.
Likewise, if you usually do your open water swims in a wetsuit, but are training for a non-wetsuit swim, it’s worth practising without a suit.
If you’re new to swimming in the open water, it will likely come with some anxiety. In the pool, you’ll often feel a sense of safety with clear and shallow water, lifeguards on deck and an exit a short distance away.
The open water can be different and cause you to tense up. You must stay calm and keep your breathing relaxed. If you find yourself starting to panic, roll onto your back, float, and try to calm yourself down. Continue when you are feeling calmer.
It should go without saying that there are inherent risks with swimming in the open water and you need to be prepared. Here are a few things you can do to increase your level of safety while you’re swimming.
Swimming, particularly open water swimming, can be one of the most significant challenges for many new triathletes. The advice shared above and some dedicated training that gradually increases your swimming load and exposure to open water should help make you feel more comfortable in all situations.