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Three weeks before the big race, Nautica Malibu triathletes had the opportunity to participate in a free open water swimming clinic run by Ian Murray and the staff of Triathlon Training Series at Zuma Beach. For just the $12 cost of a USAT one-day membership, I jumped at the chance to learn expert tips on: (1) warming up for an open water triathlon swim, (2) shore start strategy, (3) entering the ocean, (4) swimming after you’ve passed the break, (5) swimming back to shore, and (6) open water swimming drills for the ocean. I happily signed my life away on the safety waiver and donned my wetsuit along with about 50 other athletes.

Swim Clinic

50 hearty souls ready to brave the waves of the Pacific Ocean at Malibu

Here’s what I took away from the clinic (my apologies to the experts if I’ve misrepresented any of their helpful advice!)

Open Water Swimming Triathlon Warm-Up

After a brief pep talk, we started our warm-up with a short jog down the beach before lining up on shore to enter the water. The jog was followed by a swim out to a Los Angeles County lifeguard putting all of his hard training to use by acting as a buoy (huge thank you to him and all the lifeguards out there!) Out and back, the swim loop added up to about 300 meters. I learned to keep in mind the following for the warm-up:

  • Start off first thing by walking in and scoping out the ocean floor with your feet. Watch for drop-offs, rocks, ridges and reefs that could pose hazards. The sand shifts even from hour to hour and by entering the water to check things out, you prevent injury.
  • Plan to do a warm-up shortly before your race start. Do it too long beforehand and you’ll burn extra energy shivering on the shore, but wait too long and you might miss the start of your wave.
  • A warm-up can take the edge off the race-day nerves by burning off some of the adrenaline you may feel before the start.
  • Do an easy effort for the warm-up. If you can, swim out to the first buoy and sight down the line of buoys. Check to see if there’s a building or other feature on land that you can use to sight for the race. For Nautica Malibu, there are two houses on the hill — a white one and a light blue one — that are right in sight in a line about 100 yards out from shore. If you’re out there for a practice drill and not a race, plan to do the first loop of your swim at about a 50% effort.

Open Water Swimming Beach Start Strategy

For a shore start, keep in mind the following:

  • Watch the swimmers whose “waves” start before you. See where people position themselves and gauge where you might fit in the pack. For USAT-sanctioned events, each wave can have up to 150 swimmers. For Nautica Malibu, the waves are organized by gender and age and may contain anywhere from 70-150 swimmers.
  • If you are a confident and fast swimmer, position yourself toward the front to make an early breakaway. If you are not a confident swimmer or you know you will go at a slower pace than most, position yourself on the far edge of the pack and/or at the back of the pack. Prepare to follow the tips below for entering the ocean.

Entering the Ocean

One of the toughest parts of an open water swim in the ocean is the start. It can be intimidating and sap your energy — two things that make it all the more important for triathletes to practice this portion of the swim over and over again. For the clinic workout, we entered the water five times.

  • There are four ways to enter the ocean and get past the break: (1) walk, (2) run, (3) dolphin dive, (4) swim. You will likely use a combination of those techniques that depends on the conditions on race day.
  • When a large wave approaches you, dive under it to avoid being tumbled by it. Hold your hands out together in front of you as if you’re trying to slice through the water. You want to make your dive about five seconds before the wave reaches you.

Swimming after You’ve Passed the Break

After you’ve passed the line where the waves break, you round the buoy and settle into a steady swim.

  • Many people breathe to the left for an ocean swim. For a race like Nautica Malibu, that means you’re looking out to the ocean and can easily drift off course. Practice breathing to the right so you can sight the shore occasionally. Work toward bilateral breathing.
  • Sometimes athletes try to swim freestyle with their heads up to aid in sighting. That can unnecessarily burn extra energy. Try swimming 10 strokes with your head down, then lifting your head briefly to sight before you turn your head to the side to breathe.
  • Make sure to sight off the buoys or a landmark. Don’t blindly follow the person in front of you. He might be drifting off course.
  • Be careful not to confuse the buoys with the brightly-colored swim caps of your competitors. Swim waves often are given different colored swim caps on race day and the red caps just might match those red buoys!
Practicing the open water swim

With those colorful swim caps we look like Skittles candy bobbing in the water.

  • If you need to catch your breath, roll onto your back and float or do a slower-paced backstroke. Triathlon rules permit you to hold onto a lifeguard’s board or a boat, but you cannot ask to be pulled forward. You need to move forward under your own power!

Swimming Back to Shore and Running to the T1 Transition

If you practice in the ocean, the swim back to shore is where you can gain a lead on a lot of your competitors.

  • Swim toward shore while sneaking an occasional look behind you to keep an eye on the waves. You don’t want to be swamped, and you do want to take advantage of a chance to body-surf in. Catch a wave with your body and you can pass many of those around you.
  • You can even flip on your back for some backstroke to keep an eye on the waves, then flip forward again to body surf.
  • If you’re going to get swamped by a wave, turn and face it in time to duck under to the relative calm.
  • Swim and dolphin dive toward shore until you can stand up and lift your knees high out of the water. Kick your feet out to the side to break the water’s surface and gain as much speed as you can.
  • While you’re still in the water, start unzipping your wetsuit. Peel your arms out as you run on shore. Strip down to your waist as you approach T1. The faster you get out of your suit, the easier it is. As your suit drains out the water and starts drying, it sticks to you and makes it that much harder to peel it off. Rip off your goggles and swim cap. Mentally pat yourself on the back and focus on the bike. You conquered the swim!

Open Water Swimming Drills in the Ocean

For the swim clinic, we did the warm-up jog followed by one warm-up loop of 300 meters. We ran around a trash can on shore back to the swim start, rested one minute, and then headed out for another 3 loops. Swim 300 meters, rest one minute, repeat, for a total of 1,200 meters (just 300 meters shy of the 1,500-meter international race distance).

running during open water swimming drills

That’s me in the green cap

For one last drill, we entered the water until we were neck deep. We turned around and practiced exiting the water, stripping down our wetsuits to our waists, running across the sand to the parking lot and completely removing our wetsuits any which way we could!

The clinic boosted my confidence tremendously. What a great opportunity to practice entering and exiting the water, gaining both a mental and physical advantage on race day. I truly appreciated the advice from the experts as well as the chance to meet some fellow triathletes (hi Alma and Alison!)

The experts advised that at this point, three weeks before the key race, we should be swimming two to three times per week, and at least one of those swims each week should be in the ocean.

Alright, I’ve shared all my hard-earned secrets, what’s your best advice for open water swimming? Wish us all luck on race day!

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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.

Pacific Ocean at Zuma Beach

The shore start for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon at Zuma Beach

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?

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After a prior postponement due to child illness, my family and I made it out to Zuma Beach on Sunday along with what seemed like half the population of Southern California. The roads were crowded with people fleeing the inland heat, but the beach itself was fine. Malibu has 21 gorgeous miles of coastline and there was room for everyone!

You see the beautiful Pacific Ocean view at Zuma Beach in Malibu, but I see the intimidating waves I’d need to conquer on my open water swim!

Before I could get too nervous about practicing the one-mile open water swim for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, I wiggled my way into my wetsuit and posed for the camera because wetsuits are so flattering (not!)

Smiling through the fear

The first challenge in the water was getting out past the two sets of waves that pounded the shore. On my first attempt, I made it past the first set but was still getting hammered by the second set that was farther out. I headed back to shore and consulted with my husband and Chief Safety Officer, who advised me to swim out an additional 50 feet or so to get free of the worst of the waves. It took some guts to get back in the water.

Once I made it past that second line of onslaught, Poseidon rewarded me with the sight of two dolphins swimming past me! They looked so big that my first thoughts were: “Dolphins! Amazing! Wow, those dorsal fins are huge. Wait, are those really dolphins? Could they be sharks?! Does anyone else see them?! Do I look like a tasty seal in my black wetsuit?” After my heart stopped racing I just hoped my kids had gotten to see the dolphins swimming with their mom (with the kids’ mom, me, not the dolphins’ mom, and yes they did see the dolphins. The kids saw them. You know what I mean).

The swim was harder than any I have done before. That was my ninth time in open water, after two times in a protected cove off Catalina Island, three times in choppy Mission Bay in San Diego, once off Silver Strand Beach at Coronado Island, once in freshwater Lake Cahuilla near Palm Springs, and once at Corona Del Mar State Beach.

Because the swim proved so tough, I learned a lot. (1) Strap your goggles on tighter, silly, this is the Pacific Ocean! (2) Dive under the waves that are trying to tumble you in the washing machine. (3) Learn to identify dophin fins vs. shark fins. (4) Stop trying to fight the ocean and just swim! (5) Alter your breathing pattern to fit the conditions. I finally determined that I did the best by breathing to my left side, every two strokes, rather than my usual alternating sides every three strokes. It helped me manage my feeling of hyperventilating, and it allowed me to keep tabs on the waves and avoid being swamped.

I can’t say it was a fun experience, but it was an empowering one! I made it the whole 1.5K and now I know that if I can do it in those winds and high waves in the afternoon, I can do it in what I hope is the relative calm on the morning of race day.

I am so grateful that my family supported me with a trip out there. We made a mini-vacation out of it and treated ourselves to dinner on the patio at this family-friendly place:

Thumbs-up (or claws-up?) to the Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market

followed by gelato at Grom Gelateria, also in Malibu. I don’t have a photo of my yummy vanilla gelato because I was too busy inhaling it savoring its wonderful flavor.

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