Luckily, swimming is my strongest discipline in triathlon. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m “good” – just that I’m not as bad as cycling and running, haha. I was always comfortable swimming growing up and that comfort has extended into adulthood. But I know not everyone feels quite as confident getting out there in the open water! That’s why I’ve got Amber here today sharing her top tips for improving your open water swim in triathlon. Enjoy!
How to Master the Open Water Swim
Today I have the pleasure of guest posting here at Snacking in Sneakers! Thank you Chrissy for having me on the blog today, we are going to have some fun. For those of you who don’t know me I joined the swim team when I was eight years old and swam all the way through high school. While I love the swim, I know not everyone is as confident in the water as I am. Don’t let a fear of open water swimming keep you from diving into your first triathlon.
Once we learn to walk we begin to run, and most of learn to ride a bike at a tender young age as well. While many learn to swim as children, it seems few become truly proficient at it. Unless you spent your summers on a swim team growing up, it is unlikely you learned the different strokes, let alone how to swim competitively. And unless you are a triathlete it is even more unlikely that you were ever taught how to swim confidently in open water.
Fear of the swim is the number one reason I hear people opting out of the wonderful sport of triathlon, but a fear of open water need not hold you back. With a few key focuses you can master the open water swim.
Learn Bilateral Breathing
If you have ever worked with a swim coach then you have had this one drilled into your head. For triathletes this is not so much about balancing your stroke, it is about learning to breath on both sides.
In an open water swim you may find the need to breath exclusively on one side, and if you don’t learn to bilateral breath this could spell trouble. Let me give you an example, you are at a race and there is hard chop hitting you from the left side. My guess is you are going to get better breaths and feel a lot more comfortable if you breathe exclusively on your right side, away from the waves.
Or let’s say you are swimming in a pack of aggressive age groupers and there is a guy that will not get off your right side! In this case you are going to have a much better experience if you are comfortable breathing exclusively on the left, at least until you get a chance to shake that guy off your right side.
If you never take the time to learn the skill of bilateral breathing these situations will make for a more challenging swim leg, and the feeling of being unable take in a good breath can be downright terrifying. Luckily there is an easy solution, practice bilateral breathing in the pool and you will have the skills needed to breathe exclusively on whichever side works best in a racing situation.
One of the biggest mistakes that new triathletes make is avoiding that cold lake water until moments before the gun goes off. The last thing you may feel like doing at 5:45am is opening up the front of your wet suit and letting that icy water slide in between you and your neoprene coating, but that is exactly what you need to do! And you need to do it well before your wave starts to give your body a chance to adjust to the change in temperature.
There is often an area near the swim start where you can get in for a brief warm up. Be sure to take advantage of this time. You are not only warming up your swim muscles to get ready for that explosive swim start, you are also giving it a chance to get accustomed to the cold. A good warm up can help you avoid that short of breath, sudden panic attack that some athletes experience during a cold open water swim.
It doesn’t take much, just a few minutes to loosen up your shoulders and get your blood pumping should do the trick. You can think of it as something similar to that first few hundred at the beginning of your swim sessions, just getting everything primed and ready to move.
Even with a good warm up you may experience some shortness of breath in cold water situations. Don’t panic, if this happens to you stay calm. Switch to a breaststroke or flip over on your back while you catch your breath.
If you are feeling truly unsure of yourself you are allowed to hang on to one of the life boats while you catch your breath. As long as they do not move you forward you can continue the race when you are ready. If this does happen to you don’t let it deter you from racing again, most of the triathletes I have talked to have only experienced this once in their racing career, you just got it out of the way early!
Learn To Sight
One of the biggest differences between open water swimming and the pool is that there are no lane lines to follow. This means it is worthwhile spending a little time learning how to sight.
There are simple drills you can practice in the pool to build the muscle and skills need for sighting. When you sight you slightly pop your upper body out of the water to get a look at the course ahead, this takes a little bit of strength and skill. If you don’t spend some time working on sighting during practice sessions you may feel some fatigue when it comes time to sight throughout your race.
The first drill you will want to try is “Head Held High” This is exactly what it sounds like, you will swim the length of the pool holding your upper body and head out of the water. You are still swimming the crawl stroke while you do this, and it will be challenging.
The next drill you will want to include is a “Sighting Drill” you will pop up and sight the end of the pool every 3 strokes. This is exactly what you will be doing during your open water swim.
Depending on your skill level you will want to sight somewhere between every other stroke and every 5 strokes during the race to insure you are staying on course. It is worth the extra effort, just think of how much further you will have to swim if you spend several minutes swimming in the wrong direction. Take your time and sight. If you are having trouble spotting the buoy it is ok to stop and take a look around, you will save time by not going wildly off course.
Pro Tip: Sight something on shore that is larger than the buoy. Buoys can sometimes be hard to spot, before the start look around and see if there is something larger on shore that can help guide you in, like a particularly tall tree or the balloon arches of the swim exit, for example.
Hang Back From The Pack
While swimming with others is just part of the triathlon culture it doesn’t mean you have to take part in the mosh pit mentality that is the triathlon swim start. From wild elbows, to miss placed kicks, getting in the thick of it with other swimmers can result in a less than pleasant open water swim experience. While there is no way to make others play nice, that doesn’t mean you have to play their game!
If you are new to the swim, a slower swimmer, or just have fear of a mass swim start don’t hesitate to hang back. Before the gun goes off make sure you are positioned at the back of the pack, where you won’t be mowed over from behind. Once the gun goes off count to 10 before you start your swim. This should give those hyper competitive age groupers a chance to sprint out ahead and leave you with a nice calm route to the first buoy.
If you do find a swift kick to the chest taking your breath away or your goggles being knocked from your head stay calm. Make sure that you are not in danger of another blow, then take a moment to catch your breath, put your goggles back on and sight your next buoy, it’s not the end of the world and you will quickly find your grove. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.
Sharks, Seaweed, And Murk Oh My!
Among the top open water fears I hear from triathletes are the wild life. From murky waters and algae filled lakes, to sharks swimming in the open ocean there are many things about open water swimming that can spark the imagination. There is honestly very little you can do about these things, it’s nature – the important thing is to stay calm.
Don’t let your imagination wander. I often go into a meditative state during the swim. This not only keeps me calm during the first leg, but leaves me feeling laser focused as I transition into the bike. I will often repeat a mantra like “Just Keep Swimming,” or count my strokes between sightings. And if you are really worried about those sharks just remember more people die each year from falling vending machines than from shark attacks.
Get Out There And Swim
When it comes down to it the best thing you can do is practice! Grab a training buddy or join a triathlon club and log some open water time before your next big race. Give it a little time and you may find heading to the lake for an early morning dip even more enjoyable than hitting the pool deck!
Share with me: Veteran triathletes, how did you overcome your biggest open water fear? Budding triathletes what is the number one thing that most concerns you?
Amber Keech is a health and fitness coach, half ironman finisher, and former collegiate triathlon president. With several age group wins, this year Amber is making her come back from baby number two and diving back in at the half ironman distance.