Mastering The Open Water Swim

Whether you are an aspiring open water competitor or a triathlete, open water swimming can be an intimidating skill to conquer.  Unlike the pool, open water can have varying conditions (think glassy smooth to whitecap chop) and poor visibility.  Add to that a few hundred swimmers around you, and it’s no wonder even elite pool swimmers can struggle in open water. Read on for some tips to help you master the skills of open water swimming.

Play it Safe – The most important part of open water swimming is ensuring safety.  NEVER swim alone.  Swim with friends, if possible, and get comfortable swimming with people around you.  If you don’t have a friend to swim with, recruit someone to kayak alongside of you.  If that is not an option, swim on a beach that has a lifeguard and do laps back and forth within the swim area.  A few other safety tips – wear a wetsuit for buoyancy, wear a bright swim cap for visibility, and know the weather and current conditions!

Remain Calm – Open water swimming can be frightening even for experienced swimmers.  Visibility is often poor, and you don’t know what is under the water.  Remember that any fish or water creature is more afraid of you than you are of it!  Ignore them, and they’ll avoid you.  Breathing can make a difference between staying relaxed and getting panicked.  If you hold your breath between taking breaths, you will build up too much CO2 in your body and start to become hypoxic which can cause you to hyperventilate.  By exhaling as soon as your head returns to the water, you will be able to stay relaxed and be ready to take in a full breath of oxygen the next time you turn to breathe.

Stay the Course – Swimming straight and staying on course can make all the difference in open water swimming.  Sighting is a technique where you lift your head up periodically to fix on a point of reference (a buoy, a tree line, the shore, etc.) to be sure that you are still heading in the right direction.  Beginner swimmers should sight every 6-10 strokes; more experienced swimmers can sight every 15 – 20 strokes.  

Ride the Wave – Open water can often be choppy or have a strong current; it is important to adapt your stroke to be most efficient in these conditions.  Choppy water requires a shorter stroke with higher turnover and high elbow recovery.  Focus should be on the underwater pull to “grip” the water so it doesn’t push you back.  Try to find a rhythm with the chop as best you can and keep your head down.  Bilateral breathing (breathing on both sides) can be extremely beneficial if you find the waves coming at the side you normally breathe on.  Get comfortable breathing every three strokes with bilateral breathing.  In wavy conditions, you can actually get a speed boost as you head back to shore.  Raise your hips and increase your kick to get more speed as the waves push you to shore.  

Practice Makes Perfect – The more open water swim practice you get, the better you will be.  When training for a race, it is good to get comfortable swimming a longer distance than the race distance (over-distance).  Open water swimming in races can often be longer than the published distance if you zig zag or get too far off course.  Get comfortable swimming at least 10% more than the race distance so you have adequate endurance.  Race starts can vary from a shore run, standing in shallow water, treading water, and diving off a dock or bridge.  Get comfortable with the type of start you’ll have in your race and the high intensity effort of a race start.  It’s also good to practice your exit.  Swim as shallow as you possibly can before standing up to run.  Careful standing up as you may be slightly dizzy from the swim.  As soon as you stand, start removing your wetsuit (using Body Glide before the race will make this easier) and practice running on the ground with wetsuit, cap and goggles in hand.  Swim with friends swimming close by as often as possible.  The more you practice aggressive swimming, the more comfortable you will be.  Expect to get kicked, scratched, and pulled; It happens! 

Following these recommendations will prepare you for a successful race experience.  Hiring a swim coach can teach you specific drills and techniques to gain confidence and swim stronger in open water.  The more skills you have, the better!  Swim smart; swim happy!

~Courtney Kutler - ORR Coach

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