A challenging aspect of triathlon swimming for an overwhelming number of athletes is moving from the relative comfort and safety of the local pool and getting outside to tackle the open water. As any experienced swimmer will tell you, open water swimming is a whole different animal. The water is often murky, sometimes it’s choppy, there are no convenient black lines or lane ropes to help you navigate…and who knows what else is swimming in that water with you?! It’s not uncommon for most swimmers, regardless of ability, to experience anxiety and discomfort at some point while swimming in open water. The goal of this article is to provide ideas for skills and drills to practice so that by race day you are relaxed and confident in your ability to handle swimming in an open body of water.
In the previous article, we discussed the importance of having a regular medical check-up, swimming frequently, and swimming with a purpose. Now that the weather is warming up and you’ve logged some quality hours at the pool over the winter it’s time to move outside! I stated previously that the best way to get better at swimming is to swim; likewise, the best way to get better at open water swimming is to practice swimming in open water. Finding a good place to practice can be more or less of a challenge depending on where you live, but I recommend getting outside as soon as it’s warm enough and practicing frequently to get used to what it’s like to swim in an open body of water. Don’t wait until race day to try it out! I grew up as a “pool” swimmer but when I started doing triathlons I spent one entire summer doing only open water swimming, three days a week; I don’t necessarily think everyone needs to do that—pool swimming certainly has its merits when it comes to learning technique, pacing and interval training—but the high dose of open water swimming definitely helped me become pretty good at navigating in open water. It also helped me *mostly* overcome my fears around dark and creepy water, although every once in a while I’ll still get a little anxious if I find myself swimming alone—but rarely in races, I’m generally too focused on swimming fast at that point.
Safety should be a top priority when you are open water swimming and there are a few guidelines I recommend following when you’re practicing outdoors. First of all, never swim solo; either have other swimmers in the water with you or someone in a boat escorting you. This way you will be more visible to boaters, and if you happen to experience a problem someone will be right there to assist. Avoid areas of high boat traffic and wear a brightly colored swim cap to increase your visibility. It’s generally a good idea to stick to no wake zones and to swim parallel to the shoreline so that you never get too far out from the shore to swim back. If you are extremely timid about swimming outdoors, find out if there is a local triathlon club that does group open water swims or clinics; the tips and encouragement you receive can be invaluable in building your confidence in the open water.
If you live in an area where the water tends to be cooler and/or you anticipate wearing a wetsuit at your race, then I recommend investing in a good wetsuit and practicing swimming in it several times before race day to get used to how it feels. It’s important get a properly fitting wetsuit so make sure to do some research first and choose a wetsuit that is appropriate for you. Remember, getting into the wetsuit is (luckily) NOT part of the race—but getting out of it is! So make sure to practice taking your wetsuit off quickly after swimming in it. If the water is especially cold you may want to wear two swim caps to conserve body heat or consider wearing a neoprene cap, and if your feet get cold you can also wear neoprene booties. Make sure you have a good pair of goggles that don’t leak or fog up as that will inhibit your ability to navigate. Get comfortable using this gear in practice so that when race day comes it’s second nature.
When you are training in open water, use existing landmarks to set a course and practice sighting; I often use a line of “no wake zone” buoys when I do open water swims, so it ends up being similar to following a buoy line in a race. Get into a rhythm of sighting—lifting your head up to the front every 4-8 strokes to see where you’re going then turning your head to the side to breathe—and learn how to use a variety of visual cues to stay on course. Remember, you don’t have to get a perfect view of where you’re going each time; look for shapes and colors, landmarks on the skyline that line up with your sight line, and take note of the angle of the sun in relation to the direction that you’re swimming. Practice swimming at different speeds to simulate sprinting at the start or surging to drop someone who keeps hitting your feet. When you are with other people try swimming side-by-side, off the hip, and directly behind each other to develop a feel for catching the best draft. To mix things up, practice swimming in a pace line where the person in the back sprints up to the front and you keep rotating through for a certain time or distance. Not only are these drills fun, they will help you develop speed, become accustomed to physical contact with other swimmers, and increase your confidence by virtue of simply spending time in the open water.
If you are limited to pool swimming only, then recruit some of your buddies to do open water simulation drills with you. Practice swimming two or three abreast in a lane to get used to the turbulence and contact with other swimmers, then experiment with different pace-lining formations to learn how to feel and catch a draft. Become efficient at sighting by practicing the movement of lifting your head first and turning it to the side to breathe; when you’re comfortable with that try closing your eyes underwater then opening them only when you lift your head to sight. Are you weaving all over and bouncing off the lane ropes like a pinball, or can you hold a pretty straight line? Do swimming sets that get your heart and respiratory rates up so that you are accustomed to how that feels in the water and attuned to what is normal for your body. Train your body to swim hard at the beginning the workout to prepare yourself for the mad sprint to the first buoy. And don’t forget to practice wearing your wetsuit in the pool a few times before your race! While actually swimming in open water is the best way to prepare for the open water race experience, a healthy dose of these pool exercises are a good substitute if you don’t have access to open water.
In the next article we will talk about what to do the day before your triathlon to give yourself the best opportunity for a successful swim.
If you missed article 1 of 4, check it out here: https://rev3tri.com/2013/04/15/swim-safety-what-you-can-do-to-prepare/