Open Water Swim Tips

For many beginner triathletes, the swim can often be the most intimidating part of a triathlon.  In addition to swimming being the one event that many people are not as skilled at, it often occurs in open water.  Open water swimming is very different from training in a pool, and for that reason requires a different type of preparation and thought process.  Based on many years of competitive open water swimming, here are some things to keep in mind when diving in to your first open water swim.


Unless You Swim In Warm Water, Consider Using A Triathlon Wetsuit.  Better buoyancy in the water, warmth in cold lakes, and better balance as you glide through your swim are all benefits of using a triathlon wetsuits.  Most racers will wear a wetsuit if it is allowed, and in longer races a wetsuit can be a huge benefit because of the increased balance it gives you as you swim and the subsequent ability to kick a little less.  You will find that your body floats more uniformly when you have a wetsuit on, and it can give you a bit of a safety blanket if you find that your confidence in open water isn’t where it should be.  While a good wetsuit can cost $250 and up, buying one can be a great investment if you plan to do multiple races (and keep in mind that one of the top wetsuit manufacturers, Xterra, is our club’s sponsor).  As a general rule, the more you spend, the better range of motion and comfort you will have.  Be sure to practice with it a few times before race day.


Start Slow.  Beginning the race slower and getting comfortable in the water is usually a good idea for beginners.  Think negative splits, as you might during the run leg.  At the outset of a race, it is important to get in a rhythm, get your breathing right, and find a speed that works for you.  Begin too fast, and you may find yourself out of rhythm and even panicking before the first turn.  Rather, begin more slowly, find your swim stride, and then gradually begin to speed up.  As you get to the 2nd part of the race, you will notice yourself moving past the people who started out too fast and are hitting the wall.   One important tip is to not be in the first wave of swimmers in your heat.  That wave is usually made up of elites and those who are seasoned swimmers, and the few beginners who end up with them will find themselves starting out much faster than they should.  Instead, wait a few seconds after the opening gun and gradually enter the water in a more controlled pace.


Practice, Practice, Practice.  Because one race day could be so different than the next, it is important to be prepared for nearly anything as you enter the water.  The best way to do that is to have done it before, and know how you respond to being in the open water.  Ideally, you can practice by finding a group that will let you join them as they do open water swims in a local body of water, or simply get a few people together yourself.  You will want to wear the exact gear that you plan to use on the day of the race in order to get a good feel for it.  You will want to be familiar with everything from if your goggles fog to the way your triathlon shorts feel beneath your wetsuit.   As you practice, work on your sighting, which is the motion of looking up occasionally to get your bearings.  Most racers who closely track their distances find that they actually swim quite a bit further than the advertised race distance because of the zig-zagging of open water swimming, and good sighting can reduce this effect.  Be sure to practice breathing off of each side of your body.  The wind could be from either side on race day, and you want the flexibility to adapt to conditions.  Finally, consider using new goggles – they are far less likely to fog than a pair that has seen the pool a few dozen times.


Getting in good condition in the pool is very important, but there is no substitute for learning how to open water swim effectively.  With some preparation, practice, and the right mental mindset, you can tackle the open water like a seasoned veteran and be off to your bike leg in no time.

 Paul Johnson is the founder of, a resource for triathlon wetsuit and gear guidance, reviews, and advice.


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