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Triathlon Tips: The Open Water Swim

The Open Water Swim

The vastness of the ocean, the speed of a river, or the stillness of a lake are all good reasons to enjoy an open water swim.  You can think of them as the original “endless pool”.  This blog post is for the new triathlete who might be a bit nervous about swimming in open water.

The Malibu Triathlon features a beautiful open water swim.

Because we’re talking about triathlon, our first inclination is to talk about speed, but speed is not the only concern in open water.  Safety is important too.   Although several volumes  can be written on open water swimming, here are just a few tips to help with both safety and speed.

Getting Into The Wetsuit

This is just a matter of convenience, but it will relieve a lot of stress for anyone struggling with their wetsuit.   The quickest and cleanest method is to use a plastic shopping bag over the hands/feet.  Don’t use any oils or sprays that might degrade the neoprene of the suit.

Guard The Goggles

Choose a style of goggles that is comfortable because you may be wearing them for 30 minutes or more without a break.   Of course, you want them tight enough so they don’t leak, but loose enough so you don’t cause discomfort.

Once you’ve found the right style, get in the habit of putting the goggles on BEFORE the swim cap.  This may not be practical for people with long hair who have to tuck their locks under the cap, but this order has a purpose.   Swimming with goggles is not necessary, but it helps tremendously with navigation and anxiety for those who are new to swimming.  Losing the goggles in the middle of a race can be quite traumatic so you should do whatever you can to protect them.  One of the simplest methods is to be sure the goggle straps are under the swim cap.  That way, if the goggles get knocked off, they are less likely to drift off or sink.  Which leads us into the next tip.

Don’t Fight The Crowd

If you are either a very strong swimmer, you have a lot of confidence in the water, or you are contending for the podium, then go ahead and fight the masses.  Otherwise, you should probably hang back and start out easy.

If you’re not familiar with a typical mass swim start, let me paint you a picture of an in-water start triathlon.  Your group is about to start

Mass swim start

Mass swim starts can be scary for the beginner triathlete.

the race and you are treading water in the middle of about 100 other athletes.  You are so close to them that you can feel their intensity.  When the canon roars or the air horn blows, all those athletes go from vertical to horizontal very quickly which means flailing arms are coming down on more than just water.  Elbows coming up can catch a jaw and hands coming down can smack a fellow athlete in the head.  It can get pretty nasty if you’re in the thick of it, but after a few hundred meters or so the mass of swimmers thins out enough that you can find your own space.

My advice to beginners is to hang near the back and count to 10 when the starting gun fires before swimming.  You’ll lose a bit of time at the beginning, but your stress levels will be so much lower.

Swim Straight

You can waste a lot of time by not swimming straight.  Not only do you waste time, but it’s very demoralizing to look up in the middle of the swim and realize that you are way off course.   Most races provide big, bright sighting bouys to help keep you on track, but they don’t work if you don’t look for them.

The first practice to keep you swimming straight is to slightly lift the head and look where you are going.  Although many beginners will stop swimming and tread water  every so often to navigate, sighting does not have to be so dramatic.  A slight lift of the head between strokes is all you need, but no matter how slightly you lift your head, sighting will slow you down (just a bit), because your legs may drop.

In general, the less frequently you lift your head to sight, the faster you will go.   You can’t eliminate sighting completely except at IRONMAN Lake Placid were you can follow the cable under the water (see my comment above about fighting the crowd).    However, you can shape up your stroke so that you naturally swim straighter which means you won’t have to sight as often.   The best way to do this is hire a swim coach.  To locate a good coach, you’ll have to ask around at tri clubs or among fellow athletes.

Getting Out Of The Wetsuit

This tip is not a matter of safety.  It’s a completely a matter of speed. Getting out of the wetsuit can be a huge time waster.   Spend a little more time in the water by removing the suit before you get out.  When you run to transition in the wetsuit, the water between the neoprene and your skin runs out which makes for a very difficult removal.

Be Safe And Have Fun

Reading a blog post isn’t going to make you good swimmer in the open waters, so put on your goggles and a brightly colored swim cap and get out there.  Safety should be your first concern so get with a training group or with some friends who have experience and have some fun.

See you at the races.

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