Everyone knows that a good swimmer will have an advantage over those who are less skilled swimmers in a triathlon, but it is not as simple as being a good lap pool swimmer. Most races have an open water swim, which brings with it an entirely set of disciplines and skills to master. In order to do your best in an open water swim, here are six tips to help you prepare for your big race.
Practice. There is no substitute for practicing in open water. For most people who don’t have a lake outside their back door, that might mean looping in with a triathlon or swimming group in order to have safe, planned open water practices. An alternative is to find a local swimming beaching and do laps just inside the outermost swim boundary, if it is a large enough area. Since many in Northern climates have a short open water training season, those triathletes may want to maximize their training window and start earlier in the spring by using triathlon wetsuits which can keep the swimmer warmer in the water.
Work on Sighting. When you swim in a pool, you have the luxury of following a nice blue stripe at the bottom. In open water, you need to have a technique to help you stay on course. There is not “standard” sighting technique, but for most triathletes it involves looking up every once-in-a-while (I tend to do it every six to ten strokes) to make sure you have the bearing you want. Having a smooth, sweeping sighting motion will help your body stay balanced and allow you to not lose momentum when sighting. One trick most triathletes use is to fix on an object on the shore, rather than sight only the buoys that the race put out. Sighting something on the shore will help you swim a straighter line and reduce variability in buoy locations, which tend to shift when in the water.
Be Flexible in Breathing. If you have developed a swim technique where you breathe to your right on every second or fourth stroke, it may work great in a pool. In open water, however, having limited flexibility in breathing can leave you in a tough spot if the wind and waves pick up from the wrong direction, or if the buoys alternate between being on your right or your left. Develop a swim stroke that can have you breathing off to your right or your left, because you will probably find yourself in situations where you want that flexibility in the water.
Use a Wetsuit if you Can. We discussed the advantage of using wetsuits for warmth up above, but there are other benefits you should keep in mind as well. A good wetsuit will not only keep you warm, but it will also help you be more buoyant in the water and allow you to balance much better. Because of the wetsuit’s buoyancy, using one can be a great safety blanket for less experienced swimmers. It also allows you to kick a little less, which can help you save energy for the bike. If you plan to use a wetsuit, however, you will want to practice in one before race day, using the exact triathlon clothing that you plan to wear during the race so you can get a good sense of how it feels. The tightness and feel of a wetsuit can take a little getting used to. Finally, before you get your heart set on using a wetsuit, make sure to check your race’s rules and history, as some races don’t allow wetsuits because the water can be too warm. The magic temp is usually 78 degrees.
Use New Goggles. This is a simple one, and one that everyone can take advantage of. Use new goggles (or ones that are nearly brand new) during your open water swims and your race. New goggles fog less, and foggy goggles in open water are no fun. The more that a pair of goggles has been in the pool, the more they will fog on a cool race morning. This means you will need to have more sets of goggles on hand, but it will be worth it when you are swimming in the open water.
Start Slow. Just like you might try to do in a marathon, you want to start your race slower than you might feel like you should. This will allow you to get used to the crowd, the conditions, and assess the pack you want to swim with before you expend too much energy. It can be tempting to start out fast given the adrenaline of an open water swim, but you are better off to relax in the water and speed up only when you feel comfortable.