Surviving Open Water Swims

The first two triathlon’s that I competed in held the swim portions of the race in a pool. The third race that I did had the swim in a canal that was only 4 feet deep and about 20 feet wide, so I don’t count this one as open water either. My first experience with an open water swim came in the fall of 2009…in the Ohio River!

I’d been in lakes and rivers before, “swimming” and floating around on a Saturday afternoon – taking advantage of knowing someone that has a boat. I was not scared of being in a body of water that was too deep for me to touch the bottom or too big for me to safely swim to shore. 
I knew that during the 2010 season, I was planning on doing at least two races that had open water swims, so I decided to sign up for the Ohio River Open Water swim in August of 2009. This swim only event offered three distances, 1/2 mile, 1.2 miles and 2.4 miles. I opted for the 1.2 mile swim. Since it was August, the water was way too warm to even consider a wetsuit, and they didn’t allow arm floaties…so it was just a swim cap, goggles and some shorts for me.
They started everyone together, regardless of what distance you were doing. They had us all swim out into the river and attempt to tread water against the current for a few minutes before finally sounding the starting horn. I was more nervous trying to tread water than I was once the race started. The current was pretty strong that day and it took a lot of energy (of which I didn’t want to waste) to try and stay in the same spot.
Once we were underway, I was almost immediately kicked in the chest by the heel of a guy in front of me. I quickly made a move to my right and was then hit in the face by an elbow – knocking my goggles off of my right eye. Fortunately, I had put my goggle strap UNDER my swim cap, so the goggles did not come all of the way off of my head and sink down to the bottom of the river! I flipped over on my back and began frantically kicking while using both of my hands to empty the water out of my goggles and get them back on my face. Once I had that taken care of, everyone else had pretty much gone past me so I didn’t encounter any other body parts. 
I quickly learned one of the most important parts of successful open water swimming – sighting! I realized about 200 yards into the race that I swim very crooked.  You don’t realize this in a pool – there’s a line on the bottom and you correct yourself to stay over that line without realizing it. This is something that I’ve worked on a lot since that day. After what seemed like an eternity, I had finished the 1.2 miles in just under 52 minutes. For a little prespective, I did the 1.2 miles of the Taylorsville Lake triathlon two weeks ago in 36 minutes. 
I realize that I probably made my first open water swim experience sound pretty horrible; it really wasn’t. I settled in, didn’t panic and learned some invaluable lessons. Here’s some tips for those of you that are new to open water swimming:

  • Try and practice swimming in open water before you do it in a race. Local triathlon clubs often hold open water swim practices – find one.
  • If you are new to open water swimming, do not start in the front. Start in the back or off to one of the sides from the main group. You are less likely to be kicked or punched.
  • Practice sighting in a pool. I will often stand a kick board at each end of the pool and practice sighting it as I swim laps.
  • Relax and maintain your stroke. If you panic, you are likely to raise your head up, or speed up your stroke. All this does is slow you down and wear you out. Trust your training, tell yourself to swim just like you do in a pool.
  • Follow the bubbles. When you kick, you leave a trail of bubbles behind you. If you can see even a few feet in front of you, find the bubbles from someone’s kick and follow them.
  • Learn to breathe on both sides. During long swims, I end up breathing every other stroke. I have learned to breathe on both sides. This comes in handy during open water swimming. If someone is splashing water on one side, or the sun is hitting you right in the eye, switch to breathing to the other side.
I’m not going to lie. Swimming in open water is definitely different than swimming in a pool, but the more you do it and the better prepared you are – the easier it is. Good luck!


5/21/11: Brick – Bike (13.35 miles in 41:52), Run (4.00 miles in 30:18) 
5/23/11: Bike – Drills  (17.5 miles in 1:00:00)  
5/23/11: Weights – Round and Round – 3 sets 
5/24/11 Run – Long Aerobic Run (15.41 miles in 2:05:14) 

One Response to “Surviving Open Water Swims”

  1. Mike May 25, 2011 at 1:46 AM #

    Great OWS tips! I’ll add one for newbies. Plan on running out of gas after a minute and taking a short break. Instead of panicking, take the opportunity to look around, take in the sites, and think about how cool it is to be one your way to accomplishing one of your goals.

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