The thought of your first open water swim can be overwhelming, especially if you're doing it as a part of your first triathlon. You've heard horror stories of people getting swam over and you're unsure if this is even the right sport for you.
Luckily open water swimming, with some preparation, is very manageable and in time you can become a master of it. Preparation is key here to having a safe, fun and enjoyable time on race day. The 10 open water swimming tips I want to share with you today will go in order from pre-race through race day.
Before the Race
1. Learn the Course Map
Very rarely is a course going to change the day of a race. The race director has set up how they want their swim well before the morning of the race. Typically you're going to get an e-mail with an "athlete's guide". If you don't it can also be found on the race website. In it should be the map to your swim and your distance. Look at it!
It seems simple enough, because it is, but it can be a crucial component. If you're doing a sprint distance triathlon and there is also a longer race going on the same day, do you know where your buoys are compared to the longer race? The course maps will help guide the way here.
When you know exactly where your buoys should be, this will alleviate some of your race morning nerves. And most good race directors will explain the swim course with everyone gathered at the start the morning of the race. This will almost always confirm what you've already known. In turn giving you a little bump in confidence that you know where you're going.
2. Practice in Open Water
Not everyone has access to open water practice, but if you do then take advantage of it. When you've had practice swimming in water where you can't see the black line at the bottom of the pool, you'll begin to notice the little things that are different. Like how much of a straight line you actually swim in when you can't see that convenient black line.
Check around with your local parks and rec departments or ask around at your local bike shops/running shops or tri shops if you have them. If there's an open water swim around, a little research should help you uncover it. If you're lucky like us around Kansas City, we have a small 200-250m open water course available to use that uses small race day buoys at one of our parks. It's great to get practice swimming in and around other people plus moving around those turn buoys. You aren't going to make that kind of move in the pool!
If you aren't fortunate enough to have an open water practice with buoys available all summer: there's two other options to look out for.
On occasion one of the local bike/running stores will hold open water swim clinics designed specifically for your race. Often you'll get an e-mail about this when you've signed up for your race. If you don't then you can send an e-mail to your race director to see if there are any available. Usually these are set up on the actual race course. This is an excellent opportunity for you to practice and get rid of those nerves!
The last option is to find any kind of open swim beach. Usually they'll be filled with kids playing, but you can get to the deeper end of what's roped off (or allowed) then swim there. It's not perfect, but is still good to give you a chance to practice outside of the pool.
3. Cold Water Tip - Double Cap
If your race is going to be wetsuit legal and a cold swim (think 68 degrees Fahrenheit and below) then wearing 2 swim caps can be crucial in saving extra body heat. You can use any swim cap for the bottom, but a silicone swim cap is going to be the thickest and warmest.
By wearing two caps, you'll save body heat lost through your head into the water by insulating yourself. Although it won't ward off all the cold on your face, it should make for a more comfortable swim than if you only have one on.
3.5 Wear Goggles Underneath Your Outer Cap
With your double cap setup you have the opportunity to put your goggles on over your first swim cap, but under your race-day swim cap. This helps keep the straps secure in position on your head. Also, it keeps them safe from stray hands in the water that could accidentally pull them out position or off your face.
Nobody wants to be putting goggles back on their head in the middle of an open water swim, trust me, it's no fun.
Just like when you go to the pool, a warm-up is going to be crucial to your performance on race day. If you have a coach, then talk to them about how long they want you to warm up for. Most likely this is going to mimic what you do on a normal day at the pool.
For beginners it may mean being in the water 5-10 minutes. As you become more seasoned or if you're a stronger swimmer then it may mean a much longer time spent in the water.
The crucial point here is that your arms get loosened up and ready to go before you run at the water trying to hit your race pace "cold." Cold muscles almost always means slower times and more fatigue.
One other advantage of warming up, if it's a cold morning, is that you can get some water in your wet-suit and start warming up that inside layer of water next to your body. It may seem impractical, but this helps you avoid the "cold shock response" that can happen automatically if the water is too cold.
Essentially if the change in temperature is too great then your body will involuntarily gasp for air and constrict blood pathways. Meaning it's going to be hard to breathe on top of feeling squeezed by your wetsuit and it will take more work to get blood pumping through your body.
Take it from my personal experience, it is not fun. It causes extra stress, fatigue and overall lowers the "fun" factor for the day.
5. Check Entry And Exit Depth
When you're warming up, spend time at both the start line and the finish. What you want to check for is - how soon does the water get deep?
For the start line, you're trying to determine how far can you run out before you have to begin swimming?
Wetsuit or no, almost all of us are faster running than we are swimming so its to your advantage to know this. Take a few practice runs at it race morning and count your steps to see how far you get out before needing to swim. If you can do this before race day (like during a scheduled open water swim practice at the race course) even better.
At the exit, you want to know the opposite: how far in can you swim before you have to get up? Exiting the water is different than getting in. You want to try and swim as far as you can until your hands start scraping sand or dirt. Then you'll begin running in.
Pro tip 1: When running in you are more efficient if you bring your legs swinging to the outside and around. For example, instead of moving straight forward like normal when running, your right leg would swing out to the right and forward. Practice this before race day if possible.
Pro tip 2: Probably not for your first race, but as you progress in your races you may want to try dolphin diving if you run into water that remains shallow, but still deep enough to swim for quite a while. Check out the video with Pro Luke Bell below for an explanation on dolphin diving. Also: note how he moves his legs when entering the water at the beginning of the video, this shows pro tip 1.
6. The Float Test
This tip is for any open water race with a current of any kind.
During your warmup (or before race day if possible - check swim availability for specific course) you'll swim out onto a portion of the race course.
Once out in the water, find a landmark or stationary object and line yourself up with it. Legs up, floating almost on your back while still maintaining sight on your landmark. Then for 10 seconds simply float. See if the water moves your body one direction or another or if you stay lined up with your landmark.
This test will tell you which way the water may push you around and how much pushing it is going to do when you're out on the race course.
For example, if you know the current is running from left to right as you face out from the beach, but you are swimming from right to left (counterclockwise). Then you are going to be swimming slightly diagonally to actually stay straight (to compensate for the current). This will make a little more intuitive sense while swimming, but gives you a heads-up so you don't wind up way off course because of the current.
7. Start Warm/Stay Warm
Remember how you got in the water before you started the race? The whole idea was to make sure your muscles were properly warm and loosened up before getting in.
Here's a crucial mistake that a lot of new athletes to the sport make, standing around and getting cold after your swim.
After you exit the water from your swim warm up, you want to dry off and stay warm anyway possible. For some this means putting clothes on over your wetsuit. For others it may mean jogging on the beach a little bit to keep the blood flowing and your temperature up.
Your warm-up won't help you if you let your body temperature get cold and your muscles become constricted. So hug a neighbor, stretch, put some clothes on, jog, do a dance, pee in your wetsuit, whatever you've gotta do to keep warm while waiting for your wave to start. (I'm only half kidding about the last one).
8. Starting Position - How Fast Are You?
I know you, you've looked at last year's race results. You know about how fast the "fast people" are going to swim. How the middle of the pack will go and how the back of the pack will go. Where do you fall in these groupings?
If you're a slower swimmer (no shame, it takes time) then unless you are looking to be swam over don't start at the break of the water sprinting in as soon as the gun goes off. Your best option if you know you'll be swimming towards the back and is to position yourself there when everyone in your age group lines up for your wave start. It will take a few extra seconds to get everyone in the water and clear for you to get in, but you will have a much calmer swim because of it. Personally I think the few seconds is a great price to pay to have a much calmer and more confident swim.
When you're a middle of the pack kind of swimmer, a great start position for you is going to be towards the outside. Again, you want to try and avoid being swam over by the fast people and the people who go out too hard then fall off the pace early.
Being on the outside will allow you to get out cleanly without too much traffic/bodies in the way, but also keep you in contact with other swimmers.
For the fast guys and girls, you do your thing, the rest of us will see you on the bike.
9. Sighting - Technique
Being able to sight where you are going is the hallmark difference between pool swimming and open water swimming. The technique of sighting can be done a couple of different ways, one easier than the other. It's most easily explained in the video with World Champion Open Water swimmer Keri-Anne Payne.
9.5 Sighting Buoys and Landmarks
In the second half of the video Keri-Anne goes on to talk about one of my favorite tips for open water swimming, using landmarks.
The buoys are on the course to help you know where to go, but sometimes they're obscured. Maybe they are too far away right now (making them small and hard to spot) or they are the exact same shade as the sun that's beaming into your eyeballs. Whatever the reason, if there's a landmark that is lined up with the buoy you need to go towards this is a great way to "cheat" not actually seeing the buoy, but knowing you are going in the right direction.
Unlike the bike portion of almost all amateur triathlons, you are allowed to draft on the people in front of you during the swim.
Much the same as cycling, it gives you an advantage of not having to work as hard as the swimmer ahead of you that's "breaking the water" while still going the same speed as them.
If you can find the right swimmer, then you can go faster than you normally would by yourself. Or if you are drafting off a swimmer of equal ability then you can conserve energy for the rest of the race still hitting your normal swim times.
Most people will suggest drafting off the feet of the swimmer in front you. You do get some advantage following here.
If you check out this article by Steven Munatones over at active.com, he actually suggests the most ideal place to draft is to the side of someone, between their ankles and hips. If you have a willing friend or friendly foe this is definitely something you can practice in the pool before race day.
After The Race
Bonus Tip 11. Review your race
Race day is over, how'd you do?
Nobody masters it all in one day. Take an inventory of what you did well and what you think you can improve on then practice practice practice. The more time you spend in the water, the more comfortable you're going to be, the more fun you'll have.