I may have been joking when I said that I did speedwork with sprinter Usain Bolt, but I am serious when I say that I trained with swimmer Janet Evans. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and we trained on the same aquatic sports team. We competed against each other, and I use “competed” in the loosest sense possible, given that we were distance swimmers and in our distance races she beat me by minutes, not seconds. Hey, not that many people can say they came in second against Janet Evans! Of course she went on to become a 5-time Olympic medalist, and I went on to quit competitive swimming due to repeated sinus infections. I’m not jealous. I’m not bitter. Who’s the triathlete now, though? 😉
All that to explain that I am a competent swimmer. The swim segment ought to be the strongest part of my triathlon race, or at least my favorite part. Nope on both counts! Sunday’s swim at Zuma Beach proved I have plenty to work on. With that in mind, I reviewed several sources for open water swimming tips. These stood out as the most important for beginner triathletes like me.
1. Evaluate whether or not you will need a wetsuit. There are two reasons to wear a wetsuit: protection against the cold, and buoyancy. I find that wetsuits feel constraining and I haven’t noticed the buoyancy advantage, but I still wear one to protect against the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean. I would have gone with sleeveless if the cold temperatures for local races didn’t require a full wetsuit. If you’re a beginner and you’re not quite ready to buy a suit, you can rent one. Personally I just dove right in, so to speak, and bought my own suit. I don’t know anything about WetsuitRental.com but I appreciate its Triathlon Event Water Temperatures Index for All States. It lists the past water temperatures for many popular events in the U.S. and recommends the appropriate type of wetsuit (and booties and a neoprene cap if it comes to that!) Keep in mind that some races do not allow a wetsuit, and that it’s also possible to overheat if you wear one when the water is warm.
2. Wear your goggles under your swim cap. Putting your swim cap on over your goggles will help prevent them from being knocked off by waves or other competitors. I noticed that many of the 2012 Olympic swimmers did this even though they didn’t have to contend with other swimmers around them.
3. Conquer your fear. Getting out in the open water for several trial swims is not about “practice makes perfect” so much as it’s about learning to be comfortable in the open water. You can practice form in the pool, but you need to get out in the river, lake or ocean to learn how to sight and swim without a black line to follow, how to deal with waves and wind, and just plain how to get over the fear factor.
4. Practice your start. Will you have a beach start, a diving start, or an in-water start? Each of them requires a different technique and strategy. I love an in-water start like the one at SheROX San Diego. The shore start at the freshwater reservoir for HITS Palm Springs presented a challenge, and that’s nothing compared to the shore start for Nautica Malibu. I’ve got to work on running into the water, diving under the waves to swim out to the first buoy, and body-surfing back in to shore!
5. Expect to adjust your breathing. No matter the conditions in the water, at the beginning of a race the adrenaline requires me to breathe more often than I normally would. That’s something for me to work on, but in the meantime it simply helps to know that I can breathe from either my left or right side and can alternate sides when necessary. Not only is that helpful at the start, it’s helpful when you’ve got a competitor splashing close on your right or someone swimming over you on your left!
6. Train with some backstroke and breaststroke in addition to freestyle. I can swim a mile of freestyle in the pool no problem, but sometimes race day conditions make it necessary for me to change things up. A stroke or two of breaststroke can help you with sighting and help you catch your breath. I don’t recommend much of that though, because it slows you down tremendously! If you really need to catch your breath but want to keep moving forward, flip to your back for a while. With practice, I find that I’m nearly as fast on my back, and while I wouldn’t race the whole way like that, it’s helpful to catch my breath or to recover after accidentally getting a mouthful of water.
7. Practice sighting. With no black line at the bottom of the ocean, you’ve got to pick out a building or a feature on land to guide you. You can follow the buoys too, but there are multiple buoys and they make slightly moving targets. I understood the basic advice to “practice sighting” but it took me a long time to get down the technique that works for me. The key is the timing — where in your stroke you lift your head, and when in comparison to when you breathe. I pull hard with my right arm to lift my head enough for my goggles to peek above the water line, sight, then quickly turn my head left to breathe.
8. Cut yourself a break. Do not fight too hard to replicate that perfect form you have in the pool (ha ha — I wish I had perfect form). Enjoy the moment. You are out there doing something many others are afraid to do.
For more tips, check out these Expert Open Water Swimming Tips for Ocean Swims.
Do have any open water swimming tips? Do you love the swim portion of a triathlon or is it your nemesis?