Training TipsSwimClubs

Feel good about open water swimming

by Beatrice Black

a male and female athlete stand next to each other on the beach wearing zone3 wetsuits

Judging by the chatter among age group triathletes, and the open water swim tip articles aimed at them, open water swimming lurks as the boogeyman of the sport. It does not need to be that way.

Yes, it is important to respect the water as a matter of safety. But — guess what — open water swimming is as much fun as everything else in triathlon! Or at least it can be if you train for it. So, let's do that.

If you are new to races with open water swims or want a guided review of open water skills, sign up for an open water swim clinic if one is available to you. For Dallas-area athletes, my club, Tri-Now, has a few open water swim clinics, including the official clinic specific to Dallas Athletes Racing's Disco Tri, which is the Texas State Championship race for 2023. Click here for OWS Clinic Info

Good open water swimmers are good swimmers. Good does not necessarily mean fastest. Good means they have good technique and good endurance. We'll call that swim fitness. Those two basic elements, technique and endurance go hand in hand. Swimmers who have efficient swim mechanics find swimming easier so they can swim for a good long while without feeling wiped out. At first, establishing your swim fitness can feel like a messy mix of technique and endurance challenges. But, as with cycling and running, consistent practice can clear up the mess. 

Everything else to learn about open water swimming connects back to your swim fitness. To be ready for open water swims, to be as safe as you can be, and even to enjoy open water swimming, first and foremost, practice swimming. The off-season months, roughly November through March in North Texas, are a great time to build yourself a terrific foundation of swim fitness in the pool. 

Most of your swim training is likely to be in swimming pools. Before and during the event season, plan to include open water practice, too. Open water practice can help you to remind yourself, on race day, that you are not facing the bogeyman, you are just going for a swim. 

It's safest to practice with an organized group. If you are looking for a place to start, Tri-Now can help out there, too. If group open water practices aren't an option, still, do not go open water swimming alone. Have a friend keep an eye on you, ideally going along with you in a kayak equipped with floatation devices. Wear a brightly colored personal swim buoy so others, especially boaters, can see you. Avoid areas with motorized boats. Most personal swim buoys look like the picture on the right. 
Get in the habit of wearing a brightly colored swim cap. The bright cap is another way to make it easier for others to see you. You will have to wear one in events, so it is good to be used to it. 
If you are practicing solo with a friend keeping watch, consider taking a marine whistle with you to get your buddy's (or a boater's) attention if needed. You can attach it to your swim buoy. Marine whistles are flat, such as the examples to the left, so that water doesn't pool in them. It's a good idea for your helper to have a whistle, too. 

There are some skills to work on before your first open water event. More than once. These are some of them:

  • Starts. Not every open water start is exactly the same. There are wave starts, where age and gender groups of athletes start together. In some wave starts, athletes run into the water from the shore. Other wave starts have groups treading water for up to 10 minutes while they wait their turn to go. Increasingly popular are rolling starts, where athletes enter the water one-by-one in a steady stream, typically into water over their heads. Race directors will tell you what kind of start it is going to be long before race day, so you will have time to prepare for it. Swim clinics often include start practice.
  • Sighting. Simply put, sighting is looking where you are going. An open water swim clinic is a great environment for learning and practicing efficient sighting. How often you need to look to see where you are going depends on a number of things such as course shape, how crowded the course is, visibility, whether the water is wavy or choppy, and how well you tend to swim straight.
  • Many courses are in geometrical shapes marked off by big bright buoys that show where to turn. If you are new to open water swimming, a clinic is a super way to get the feel for turning in a low stress setting.
  • Drafting is taking advantage of the little pulling current, the slipstream, created by the swimmer in front of you. It can be a tricky skill to learn but, again, a clinic provides a comfortable environment for getting the hang of it.

Event Swim Warm-up 

Many race directors wisely provide a swim warm-up period on race day or a swim practice on the swim course the day before. Take advantage of these opportunities. They help you feel ready for the start of the race and maximize your safety in the swim. 

Race day nerves are often the jumpiest at the start of the swim. Your swim fitness, your open water practicing and participating in pre-race swims can help calm those nerves. Some good open water events to try in North Texas that feature multiple options like sprint, Olympic and aquabike distances: Cedar Hill Triathlon and TriWaco

The way to signal for help in the swim is to raise your arm over your head and pump it up and down and call out for assistance. You do not want to wait until you can no longer make forward progress swimming before asking for help. If you feel like you are in trouble, asking for help before you feel completely overwhelmed is the smart thing to do. 

Sometimes you just need a little break, for example to wait for a nasty calf or foot cramp to relax. During an event, you can stop at a support kayak to get through the moment. Rest at the front or the back of the kayak, not the middle so you don't accidentally tip over your helper. As long as you do not make forward progress during your pause, you will not be disqualified. If event safety staff pull you from the swim, do not argue. Lifeguards are trained to recognize the signs of a swimmer in serious trouble, sometimes even before the swimmer realizes they are in danger.

Wetsuits are designed to help keep a swimmer warm. For age groupers, USA Triathlon requires wetsuits when the water temperature in an event is below 60.6 degrees Fahrenheit. At most races, age-group athletes are permitted to wear wetsuits, up to 5 millimeters thick, in water up to 83 degrees. However, athletes hoping to win an age-group award can wear a wetsuit in water only up 78 degrees. At water temperatures of 84 degrees or higher, wetsuits are not allowed because athletes could suffer heat illness swimming hard in a wetsuit. The wetsuit rules are slightly different for USA Triathlon National Championships. It's always best to go over each race's athlete guide so you know what to expect. 

Triathletes pay close attention to whether a race is wetsuit legal because wetsuits also increase buoyancy and therefore can offer a competitive edge, or at least make the swim take a little less effort.

There are several different types of wetsuits. Some have full sleeves and legs. Others are sleeveless. Others have legs that don't go all the way down to the ankles. They come in different thicknesses. Choosing a wetsuit depends on what feels like cold water to you, the water temperatures you expect to be swimming in and whether you feel a wetsuit for any given race will make your race day better than if you do not wear one. 

Choosing a wetsuit is as personal as choosing a bike or running shoes. But a couple things apply to most anyone planning to race in a wetsuit. It should fit snugly but should not feel constrictive in your chest or shoulders. And practice in your wetsuit in open water well before race day. 

It's time to circle back to the biggest factor for successful open water swimming and that's swim fitness. Have enough swim fitness to comfortably complete your swim distance without a wetsuit. If you "need" the buoyancy to "survive" the swim, what you really need is more practice so you can feel good about the swim. 

Beatrice Black is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach.