As triathletes we spend most of our swim training time in the pool, but the reality is that we are NOT pool swimmers, but open water ones.
That said, if you were to take a poll of how much the average triathlete enjoys swimming open water, I would venture to say that the majority of people don’t love it that much. Whether it is the water temperature, the logistics of getting to an open water swim venue, putting on a wetsuit, fear of what lurks beneath, fear of boats or of simply feeling anxious about not having four walls and a lane line in close proximity, open water makes people nervous!
I remember when I first took the plunge and began training and racing full time as a professional triathlete. I had a profound fear of swimming open water. I had moved to Los Angeles to train under Gerry Rodrigues’ Tower26 open water swim program and on the first day of our ocean swim training I stood there petrified. I was scared of sharks, I was scared of the wave breaks, I was scared of getting hit or kicked in the face by other swimmers, and I was mostly scared of drowning. In races I always felt like “I just need to make it through the swim”, fearful of contact with other swimmers and anxious over the lack of security that a pool provides.
But, over time, while I admit that my fears are not completely gone (let’s face it, I’m still pretty scared of sharks), I’ve learned to love and appreciate open water swimming in a whole new way. AND, these days I would choose to swim in open water any day over a pool. How did I do it? Below are a few of the things that worked well for me in developing a joy and appreciation for open water swimming:
1. Swim Open Water as Frequently as Possible: The more you do ANYTHING in life, the more comfortable you feel in that environment. Open water swimming in no different. By swimming in open water regularly you develop an awareness of your surroundings, you learn how to sight, you become more comfortable not seeing that black line at the bottom of the pool (or flip turning for that matter) and you allow yourself to be immersed in variable conditions that help you become a better, stronger, and more confident swimmer. If I could swim open water every day, I would. I would encourage you to get out there more.
2. Swim With Others: Swimming with a group of people has multiple benefits. It helps swimmers become more comfortable swimming in a pack and surrounded by others. A group of swimmers together increases everyone’s comfort level in case anything goes wrong. Swimming with people of similar, but slightly different levels pushes each person to swim faster and push limits. Swimming with a group helps create a positive swim experience and will help develop open water swim skills and confidence.
By way of example, last year I did a training block in Los Angeles and returned to training with the Tower26 crew. We swam open water regularly, but on Sunday’s we did a big 4 mile swim where for the last 2 miles we practiced pace lining: We learned what it felt like to benefit from swimming in a draft vs leading a group; we learned to quickly adapt to pace changes (based on who was leading the pace line) and we learned the importance of position in the draft (whether on the feet, on the hip, shoulder, etc). All of these are critical open water swim skills that are developed through practice and can only really be trained in open water. So, find a group and get out there!
3. Enter Open Water Swim Races: I have found one of the best ways to “practice” swimming in a competitive open water swimming environment is to enter a swim race! Particularly during the summer months there are plenty of races around. They are really easy to supplement into your weekend training and a fun way to practice your open water skills, gain confidence and test your development
4. Practice Open Water Skills in the Pool: Even if you can’t swim open water, it doesn’t mean that you can’t work on your open water swim skills in the pool. Doing things like incorporating sighting into your main sets (i.e. sight 2-3x per length on hard intervals and during warm up and cool down), practicing pace lining with you lane mates, and doing race take out simulations are all great ways to work on some of the skills needed for open water. It may be HARD, but when you do get to open water you’ll feel far more comfortable and ready to take it on.
Swimming open water can be fun and really enjoyable but, as with anything, practice is really the key to increasing your comfort level and confidence. If you are nervous about being seen by passing boaters, you can buy bright orange inflatable swim buoys (which you can find on the Zone3 North America website) that are unobstructive to your swimming, but a great way to make sure you are being seen. Good luck!