Open Water Swimming

If open water swimming is something new to you, or if you panic at the beginning of each triathlon season in open water, here are some useful tips:

  1. Practice in your wetsuit. Many early triathlons are wetsuit legal, so get used to swimming in it. If it feels like it’s choking you, you can trim your wetsuit, but be careful not to cut any seams.
  2. Go for an open water swim practice. If you live in the Philadelphia area, Medford Lakes has open water swims on most Saturdays and Sundays during the summer with a few evening sessions.  French Creek Racing has practices and races that you can participate in and so does Mid Atlantic Multisport.
  3. Know the swim course and how many times you need to swim around buoys, what direction you’ll be swimming in, and how the swim will start–is it a run in beach entry? Walk in wade, and wait? Tread water and wait for a mass start? Jump or slide off of a dock? Or will you jump off the back of a ferry and swim to shore?
  4. If you can’t practice in open water before your first race, do your best to get into the water for a practice session prior to the event, if allowed. Some races do not have warm up sessions in the water before the race start. For a practice swim, hop in, totally submerge your face, blow some bubbles, and take a few strokes out and back. That is usually enough to settle your nerves; there’s no need to swim a 1600 or anything as a warm up.
  5. If there is no open water practice before an event, when you enter the water for your start, take your time, get your head wet, fix your cap and goggles, stay away from the other swimmers, and start off slowly, gradually building your speed.
  6. When problems occur like goggles filling with water, your cap slides, a cramp strikes, another swimmer swims over you, kicks you, punches you, or pulls you by the ankles, know that you can turn over on your back to fix many of these issues. Except for jerks in the water who try to pull you by the ankles, you can’t fix their behavior so you need to know how to recover from it. Do breaststroke for sighting when fatigue sets in. If you don’t know how to do breaststroke kick, do a dolphin kick or flutter kick instead, it still works!  And, if you really need it, you are allowed to hold on to the lifeguard’s kayak, paddle board, or rescue tube while you rest, as long as you are not moving forward. You can also swim any stroke in a triathlon, even side stroke.
  7. Practice open water skills in the pool. A few skills I practice with my athletes during our Saturday “group workout” of 600 yards include drafting off of another swimmer’s feet (this works if they are similar in speed to you, but just a bit faster), dock entry off of the starting blocks (I teach a stride jump to prevent athletes from going too far under), corkscrew for rounding buoys, sighting 3-6 times per 25 yards, dolphin dives for beach entry, head up freestyle for sighting in high waves or alligator eyes, and bilateral breathing to swim straighter and more balanced.
  8. Know what to do if you get a panic attack in the water. In a panic attack, your heart will race, and you’ll have difficulty breathing. Have a plan. I’ve had panic attacks in open water away from the guards and shore. I turn over on my back, focus on breathing in for three and out for three while kicking lightly and sculling with my arms so that I’m still moving. I tell myself that I am a strong swimmer, and that I can do this. After about 30 seconds or more that seems like an eternity, I turn back over and continue swimming freestyle. If you are close to a guard, ask them for help, hold on to the kayak or rescue tube until you can calm down. Whatever you do, do not try to grab onto a guide buoy because there is no way you can hold onto that, and you’ll only wear yourself out trying.

Here’s a fun 600 yard set you can do to practice some of these triathlon specific drills mentioned above:

8x75s (600 yards) as

Odds = 25: dolphin dive to the deep end / head up freestyle / 25: get out in the deep end and jump off the starting blocks with a stride jump / sight 3x as you swim to the shallow end with alligator eyes (no need to pick up your whole head) / 25: run to the deep end, dolphin dive 1x / swim breaststroke to the wall. REST. That’s one 75!

Evens=  25: Underwater flutter kick until you pop up / bilateral breathing every 3 strokes / wall kick for 10s / 25: corkscrew 3x in one length / pull up or gutter press or vertical kick in the deep end / 25: fast as possible freestyle. REST. That’s two! 6 more to go just like that!

If you have a friend, practice drafting off of each other for one of the lengths. You can draft off of the feet by swimming in the bubbles, just out of reach of the other swimmer’s feet, or you can swim off the hip of another swimmer.