Swimming with the Fishes: Tips to help you prepare for open water swimming
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
You are standing on the shore, waves lapping against your toes, staring out across the deep blue open expanse in front of you, and you are about to dive in to swim out in the open water. What do you feel? Excitement? Nervousness? Fear? Calm? Happiness? Apprehension? Butterflies?
All are TOTALLY normal. Open water swimming can be an incredible experience, but it also fills a lot of new triathletes and swimmers with dread and fear. I am here to tell you it doesn’t have to be scary. If you prepare yourself and take the right steps in your training and preparation, you will be 100% prepared for your open water swim.
First, you have to get in the pool and build your endurance so you are physically fit enough to cover the distance you are planning to do in the open water. The varying conditions of the open water can often mean slower swim times or longer time in the water than if you were in the pool, so using your time in the pool to build your stamina and be able to swim workouts longer than your planned open water distance will help you feel more comfortable and less fatigued in the later portions of your open water swim.
Practice Skills in the Pool
There are plenty of swimming skills that are uniquely beneficial to open water swimmers, and while there is no substitute for specificity in training and getting out in the open water more regularly, you should incorporate some practice of these vital open water skills in your pool swims:
Being able to breathe on both sides of your stroke is a very useful skill for open water swimmers. Being able to breathe to the opposite side of the wind or waves will prevent you from catching a mouth full of water on one of your inhales as well as help you to avoid sun glare by breathing away from the sun. This skill can be easily incorporated into any pool session.
Sighting is a skill used to determine where you are heading in the open water. In the pool, we have reference points (lane lines) to know we are headed in the right direction, but in the open water, it is easy to veer off course if you don’t occasionally look forward to see a buoy or landmark you are swimming for.
Practice in the pool by picking an object at the end of the pool to look for each lap. Just prior to taking a breath you will pick your eyes up forward and look for your object ( I like to use the clock and try to read the time or set up a water bottle at the end of my lane), then continue on with your breath and regular strokes. Over time, practice doing this as quickly as possible to avoid disruption in your stroke.
-Safety Stroke/ Treading Water-
The front crawl (freestyle) is the most efficient open water stroke, but having the ability to perform another stroke that allows you to move at a slower speed and collect yourself can be a comforting and useful tool. Breaststroke, Back Stroke, and even simply treading water can be valuable tools in an open water swimmer’s toolbox.
Practice one or multiple of these strokes in the pool. You don’t have to become a pro, but simply getting proficient enough that you know you can change it up to a stroke that allows you to keep your head above water and breath calmly will go a long way to build your confidence going into your swim.
Get the right gear
It is not often I will recommend gear, in most cases the gear you choose or choose not to use is very situational and personal, but in open water swimming there are two pieces of gear that are incredibly valuable and help with comfort and safety.
A safety buoy is an inflatable bag of sorts that floats on the surface and drags behind the swimmer. These buoys serve two vital purposes. First, they increase your visibility to boaters and other people using the water for recreation. Second, they give you a floating safety stop, a life vest of sorts.
Safety buoys are not used in races, but in training swims, even with groups they can literally be a lifesaver and should be in every swimmer’s gear bag.
The wetsuit is like adult swimmies and a down jacket for open water swimmers. Wetsuits provide warmth from the cold water and a bit of additional buoyancy to help you be more efficient in the water.
A good, high-quality wetsuit designed for open water swimming will actually make you swim faster! Now, these are not the same as scuba wet-suits, the material on the outside is designed to help you glide through the water effortlessly. They are often also designed to increase the buoyancy around a swimmer’s legs and hips to put them in a more efficient position when swimming front crawl.
Note: wetsuits are not always legal in races with warm water and you should really not be swimming in a wetsuit in warm bodies of water as it can increase your core temperature and pose a significant risk of overheating.
Ok, now you’ve trained, and you have your gear, today is the day, you are going to take the plunge you can still take a couple of steps to make your swim more enjoyable and safer.
It is important to warm up for open water swimming, and in cases when the water is chilly, it is valuable to help your body acclimate to the temperature. We have all jumped in cold water before and felt it take our breath away. The shortness of breath that comes can be terrifying. For obvious reasons, we want to avoid that feeling going into an open water swim or race, so warming up and acclimating is key.
Start with a few minutes of treading water or sitting in the water to let your body get used to the temperature and let your wetsuit fill with water and warm. Then incorporate some light and short swimming to get comfortable and get your HR up. This process will help to reduce the “shock” of jumping into the chilly water.
In some cases, warming up in the water is not allowed at the race. Warming up on land when in water warm-ups are not allowed or possible can be as simple as a short jog, some jumping jacks or air squats.
Use the buddy system for training swims. Swimming with a group in a planned open water training swims is the safest option (TEAM P3 open water swims are starting in May!), but if you don’t have an option close to you, having a friend or significant other in a kayak or on a paddleboard alongside of you adds an additional layer of safety to your swims. They can wave away oncoming boats or help you if something unforeseen happens.