Do you panic at the mere mention of open water swimming? Do you feel frustrated and get that “wanting to quit” feeling after the swim portion of your triathlon? Would you like to get comfortable, confident, and feel calm in the open water? Developing an inner confidence can make all the difference, not only in how well you perform, but in your enjoyment of your race.
Even if you are a confident swimmer in the pool and maybe even a strong swimmer in open water, the swim portion of a triathlon can be intimidating. Many triathlons start with hundreds of swimmers either on the shore ready to run into the water and some triathlons start with everyone waiting in the water to start. I’ve been lucky and had one triathlon start swimmers one at a time at 10 second intervals!
There you are, one swimmer among tens or hundreds of other swimmers. There’s legs flailing and you’re getting kicked in the head. Swimmers are on both sides of you, in front of you and behind you, someone may even be trying to swim over you. The water is cold, the wind is creating chop, all the other swimmers are adding to the chop of the water. The water is dark and murky, there’s seaweed to contend with as well.
It’s normal to feel a sense of panic at the start of the swim portion, but there’s a lot you can do to ease your worries and frustration.
I learned how to swim at an early age. I remember going to the pool around 4-5 years old and swimming across the pool, back and forth. I took swim lessons for many years of my childhood. I spent summers at the local pool and at the lake, I was a lifeguard, on the dive team and even did synchronized swimming for a while in my teens.
I felt comfortable in the water, both in the pool and in open water such as a lake or the ocean, so when I started training for the swim portion of my first triathlon, I was very frustrated and upset that it was not easy for me. Running came easy, biking came easy, I had spent countless hours in the water from an early age, why was this so hard?
For a couple of weeks I swam on my own in local open water but each time I felt frustrated and out of shape. After some soul searching I decided to take adult swim lessons. I was embarrassed and nervous about what the instructor would think, I mean I knew how to swim. I went to swim lessons twice per week for 45 minutes each time for one month. The first few times I left feeling exhausted, out of breath, and sore. But as the weeks went by, I slowly gained confidence and stamina in the pool. My instructor was patient and understanding. Instead of just having me swim lap after lap, he broke the stroke down into each separate portion. I focused on just my kick, then just my arms, establishing good muscle memory to ensure proper stroke form and technique. I spent a lot of time on my breathing techniques. My instructor moved onto more specific open water swim techniques, such as sighting, and learning how to deal with other swimmers and water chop.
By the end of my month long swim lessons, my confidence had soared. I continued swimming on my own once the lessons ended. I went to the YMCA twice per week and swam laps, using a program from Beginner Triathlete. I am lucky that on Sunday evenings the local multisport endurance club would meet to practice open water swims. There would be at least one person in a kayak out in the open water. I am privileged to know the owner of the local triathlon store who let me borrow a wet suit for several weeks.
Here are some tips for open water swim success:
- Practice swimming in a crowd. During a triathlon swim, you are likely to get jostled about and be hit with hands, arms, or feet, so practice swimming at close quarters.
- Triathlon swimming can be a contact sport, so you may have your goggles knocked off or out of place. Prepare for this. Practice putting your goggles on in deep water while you tread water or float on your back. Don’t dread this happening, get ready for it.
- In open water, lack of visibility can be disorienting, especially if you are a beginner. During an open water swim course, you must “sight” to aim toward the buoys marking the course. You need to learn to sight quickly and efficiently because lifting your head causes your body to drop and creates more drag. Sight often enough to stay on course, no more. Lift your head just enough so that your goggles are above the surface of the water, then resume your swim stroke.
- The start of a race can feel overwhelming. To deal with these feelings, have a plan. Pick your spot; if you’re not confident swimming in a pack, then aim to start at the side of the pack but not at the back. If you’re at the back you’ll have to swim through all the competitors who swim breaststroke, which is an easy way to receive a kick to the head.
- A very common mistake is to go out too hard, too fast. You will be excited about the event, so you will likely be swimming faster than you realize. Pace yourself at the beginning, you still have a bike and run ahead of you.
Finally, the tips above help, but nothing can simulate an actual open water swim. While the pool is the perfect place to do most of your training, it is important to practice in open water. If possible, swim at the site of your race. Overcome the fear factor so you are ready to race!