Open water swimming is something that many people, including professional athletes, often find intimidating. It can be frightening to venture out into water that has no walls for stopping, is often dark and murky and can be choppy. Couple that with swimming next to 50-100 of your favorite competitors and it can cause anxiety levels to rise.
When I first started out as a triathlete I was terrified of the water. I knew how to swim, but I was scared of drowning. Every open water swim was a huge emotional and mental battle and I breathed a massive sigh of relief when it was over. But over the years I’ve picked up a lot of tricks and tips that have actually made me love open water swimming and look forward to and welcome every opportunity I have to swim in a lake, ocean or river. I am still scared of drowning, but my comfort level has increased so much, that I don’t feel paralyzed by the anxiety in the way I once was in the past.
Here are a few tips that I think make a big difference in gaining comfort in the water and help you to enjoy the experience versus “survive” it:
Practice Sighting– Sighting is a skill that needs to be practiced, and when you don’t practice it, trying to do it in an open water race setting creates added stress. Try incorporating sighting into your main sets in the pool by sighting 2-3 times per length. It is hard and adds an extra layer of stress to the session, but the payoff is worth it!
Tip: Incorporate sighting into every swim session, rotating between warm up, main sets and cool dow
Frequency is key– The No.1 key to gaining comfort in the open water is to swim open water more frequently. When I began racing professionally my swim coach, Gerry Rodrigues from Tower 26, had me swimming open water 3 times per week. At first, I dreaded it but the more I did it, the more I began to enjoy it and even look forward to the sessions. My endurance increased, I felt more comfortable in managing different conditions, I became accustomed to murky waters, and I became better at sighting and navigating my way around. This comfort level had a profound influence on my racing as I spent much less energy managing the swim and instead felt in control during every race. It was an empowering feeling.
Similarly, this last year as I prepared for the Ironman World Championships, I swam open water 4-6 days per week. Simply having the opportunity to swim continuously for 45 minutes to an hour as well as work on sighting skills ended up helping me swim 10 minutes faster than the year prior.
Tip: Frequency is key. Try to swim open water 1x per week or more if possible.
Find a well-fitting wetsuit– Would you get on a bike that was uncomfortable, too big or not fitted properly for you? Or would you wear a pair of running shoes that made your feet hurt? No. The same is true for wetsuits. I have gone through my own fair share of wetsuits that made it hard to breathe or constricted my shoulders or made me feel claustrophobic. But as I’ve learned that there ARE great wetsuits out there that are comfortable, well-fitting and feel great to swim in. I LOVE my Zone 3 wetsuit – truly the best wetsuit I have ever owned in terms of shoulder flexibility and feeling natural in the water. It eliminates all stress for me in regards to how my wetsuit will feel when I am swimming.
Tip: Finding a wetsuit that fits is critical to comfort in the open water. Wetsuits like Zone 3 offer great shoulder flexibility.
Line up to the outside– For many people the idea of a mass start is stressful. These days many triathlons are shifting to a rolling swim start, which decreases the chaos. However, when mass starts do occur, one way to find your own water and space is to line up to the outside of the pack, farthest away from the first buoy. Lining up in the center invites physical connection and chaos.
Tip: Lining up to the outside of the pack typically offers more open water and a less chaotic start than lining up in the center of the pack.
It’s not a sprint– So many people go bonkers when the gun goes off and sprint like they are doing a 50m race. What happens? Your heart rate spikes, you’re surrounded by chaos, lactic acid begins to build up and suddenly you panic. Over the years I’ve learned to start out a bit more slowly and more controlled – it makes a BIG difference in how the rest of the swim plays out. Let yourself ease into it. The time saved from remaining steady and in control will outweigh any gains made from a faster start.
Tip: Start the race at a more controlled pace. Don’t be swayed to sprint in the first 50 meters.
Flip on your back– Feeling a little overwhelmed? No worries! The great thing about wetsuits is that they are buoyant. Just flip on your back and take a few strokes of backstroke or even float for a minute. Allow yourself to catch your breath and then start again. It is a great way to gain some composure when stress levels rise.
Tip: If you are feeling overwhelmed, just flip on your back and take a moment to gain your composure. It is a great way to de-stress in the middle of a race. Practice swimming with a group – Like frequency of swimming in the open water, swimming with a group helps. If you don’t have access to open water, try doing some 25’s in the pool with 3-4 people across in a lane. This helps mimic a rate start and open water race where you might be surrounded by others. You can swim at varying paces – slow, fast, moderate. It is uncomfortable but prepares you for those feelings in races. Add some sighting in there too if you are feeling motivated!
Tip: Incorporate group 25’s into your pool practices OR make an effort to swim with a similar pace group in open water.