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Being a Successful Open Water Swimmer

By Kevin Danahy

As a coach I do my best to figure out the best means of training for each individual athlete. The basic training principles don’t change much, but how a coach implements an athlete’s day-to-day routine and training plan is always unique to that individual athlete. When it comes to open water swimming many athletes will find that they have mental as well as physical challenges to overcome. As a coach my job is to take each athlete through the process of overcoming these challenges and get more comfortable in an open water setting.

swimFirst of all let me state the obvious; the ocean is not like the pool. Pool swimmers sometimes spend little to no time preparing for open water swimming. I rarely see swimmers working on sighting drills in the pool and everyone knows there is no line on the bottom of the ocean to follow … Are you able to change your swim stroke if the swells require you to do so? Can you take in breaths on both sides? There is a lot to think about when you are in the open water, so how can you swim straight out there?

The number one aspect in becoming a better open water swimmer is experience. I was fortunate enough to be an ocean lifeguard for over a decade. The amount of experience and knowledge I gained from working the beach allowed me to race beyond my potential in the open water. I was able to take that experience and use it as I raced as a professional triathlete for seven years. Let’s go over what I take into consideration every time I swim in the ocean.

-Direction of the tides                                                  -Strength of the tides

-Angle of the swells                                                     -Glare of the sun

-Temperature of the water                                            -Don’t forget body glide

-Wetsuit or no wetsuit                                                  -If I wear a wetsuit is it full suit or sleeveless?

-Slope of the beach entering the water                         -Are the waves rolling in or is it a shore break?

-Direction and strength of the wind                             -Side I need to breathe on to site of shore

All of that information is taken into account when I swim in the open water so I can swim as straight and as efficient as possible; it is almost like a complicated math equation. If any one of those factor change you will have to adjust to those changes to maintain your efficacy. Here are some aspects you can work on to improve your open water swimming.

Practice: If you don’t have an opportunity to get in the open water you can still practice what is required out there. If you can do open water workouts, do it!

Sighting: Work on popping your head up and sighting on things on the pool deck during intervals; bilateral breathing.

Balance: Being able to swim straight with your natural stroke is important in the open water. Balance and body position drills can help with maintaining an even stroke.

Visual: You can try swimming for a few seconds with your eyes closed in the pool. Do you run into the lane line? Most swimmers will, but if you work on these drills you will improve. These are just a few things that can help to prepare a pool swimmer for open water swimming. However nothing beats experience, so getting out in the open water as much as possible is the best thing to do.

Now let’s talk about the mental side of open water swimming. This normally gives pool swimmers the biggest problem. There are no walls or lane lines to grab onto if you get tired and there is no shallow end so you can’t stand out there either. Let’s discuss some factors that could prevent that scenario from happening.

Wetsuit: If you swim in the open water with a wetsuit (I recommend it) your buoyance level is completely different than what it is in the pool. In a wetsuit you can stay afloat a little more easily. Swimming also becomes easier because your hips are so much higher in the water and you don’t have to maintain a steady kick to keep the hips up; wetsuit does it for you. That will save energy and should also give the athlete a sense of comfort and safety out there.

Group Swim: How will you react to other swimmers racing so close to you in the open water? You can get kicked by another swimmer, hit, pulled under, or have your goggles knocked off. Staying relaxed while so many other swimmers are knocking into you takes practice. Being able to swim defensively is also a good tool to have in cramped swimming conditions. Swimming defensively is always having your arms around your head so if you do get kicked or hit your arms can block the blow, and this takes practice.

Waves: Some swim starts require you to start on the beach and work your way through the break zone of the waves. This can stop some swimmers in their tracks if they hit hard by a few waves while entering the water. The best place to learn this skill is to attend an open water swim clinic or hire a coach to take you out for an individual session specifically to work on getting through the break zone. 

It takes work to become better at open water swimming, and even if you don’t have the opportunity to do it in your area you can still work on the skills required to be successful out there. If you do live by a lake, bay, or ocean get out there and swim; just make sure you have some support with you (kayaker or paddle boarder). Put the work in and it will pay off for you.

Kevin Danahy is a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach and NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist. You can learn more at