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Triathlon Open Water Swimming Tips

Coach Noelle Wilhite

Open water swimming is often the most intimidating aspect of triathlon for both beginner and experienced athletes.  There are several things you can do prior to your race, however, that will help calm your nerves, increase your confidence and give you an edge on your competition.

Practice, practice, practice: When it comes to open water swimming, nothing beats experience.  Logging yardage in the pool is necessary to increase fitness and improve technique, but it will not optimally develop your open water skills. You will discover that swimming continuously in choppy, colder, currents with no walls, lane lines, backstroke flags or black lines on the bottom is a whole new experience.  The more you train in open water, the more comfortable you will become with the different conditions.  For safety reasons, it’s always a good idea to train with a buddy in open water.  Ideally, try to get in at least one open water swim every 2 weeks.  


Drafting: Although not allowed in the bike leg of a triathlon, drafting is legal and very encouraged in the swim portion of a triathlon.  When possible, always draft!  Drafting can improve your swim split and reduce your energy expenditure.  The optimal drafting position is slightly to the side between the hips and feet of the leading athlete.  The closer you are to the leading athlete without making contact the better.  Many athletes tuck in directly behind the leading athlete, and this does reduce chop making for a smoother swim.  However, sitting slightly to the side between the hips and feet will position you to essentially surf his or her bow wave or wake. 


Sighting: Very often, it is not the fastest swimmer but the smartest swimmer who comes away with the fastest swim split.  Effective sighting every 6-10 strokes will help you keep an eye on other athletes and keep you on course.  Go to the beach before the race begins and familiarize yourself with the course.  Select fixed objects (tree line, house) on the shore that are in line with the race course to look up to while swimming.  Often the course marking buoys drift or are obscured by waves, other athletes or glare.  The fixed objects will keep you on course and avoiding unnecessary yardage.  There are several sighting methods, but I find it easiest to lift my head and look forward just before a breathing stroke.  After looking forward, I immediately turn my head to the side for a breath, then drop my face down to resume a natural stroke rhythm.


Goggles: When swimming in open water, this is one piece of equipment that you really want to perform. Keep in mind, the pair you use for open water swimming may not be the same pair you prefer in the pool.  Make sure they have a rubberized or soft lens seal (you don’t want a bump in the face to turn into a cheek laceration!), good peripheral vision, secure adjustable head straps, mirrored or tinted lenses to reflect the glare of the sun, and are treated with an anti-fog solution.  As always, remember to test your equipment in training prior to race day!  Bonus tip: Wear your goggles under your swim cap to keep the head straps in place.


Relax & Have Fun:
Take a few deep breaths and remember, you are here because you signed up for this experience.  This is fun!  Everyone gets pre-race jitters, but don’t let it take away from your race-day experience.  Maintaining a positive attitude will help you calm your mind and physically calm your body.  Being relaxed will not only allow you have more fun but will also improve performance.