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How to Survive Open Water Swimming

floating on water


Variable weather and environmental conditions creates an environment that makes open water swimming different then the pool and can bring a unique psychological burden, especially for newbies.


Athletes should prepare for the swim course by learning the buoy positions and sighting cues. Also, location of the sun, possible currents, the optimal line-up spot, bottom conditions and water depth. Lower visibility, no lane lines, floor and walls to rest, the stress of cold water and swimming close to others leads to anxiety.


Before a swimmer tackles swimming in open water, it is important to address anxiety in the pool. Fear and lack of comfort with basic skills can be the athlete’s first obstacle to a successful swim. Working on techniques in the pool to address an athletes comfort level and any obstacles that might impede their open water swimming experience is necessary to ensure a successful race day finish.





  • Learn to float, work on balance and stroke technique while swimming in the pool will lead to less energy expenditure
  • It is common for your goggles to get hit and or knocked off so practice treading water or floating while taking your goggles on and off
  • Simulate swimming close to others. With 3-4 athletes in one lane, each one has one hand on the wall. Push off at the same time and race across the length of the pool while pulling on each others legs and swimming on top of each other.
  • To simulate lower visibility that you might experience in the open water, swim the length of pool, eyes closed, is possible without lane markers
  • Invest in and practice swimming in a wetsuits. Many athletes find the wetsuit uncomfortable and constricting, especially around the chest when breathing.



Once the athlete is more familiar with comfort level it is important to learn more advanced skills.  For example: warming up, sighting, drafting as well as going form horizontal to a vertical position




  • If the race venue allows, warm up for at least 10 minutes before your wave start time. This includes getting in and out of the water 4 times to acclimate to the temperature.  The conditions and temperature of the water can cause the athlete’s heart rate and breathing to increase if not properly warmed up.
  • A technique to site the buoy is called “alligator eyes.” Lift your chin so your goggles clear the water looking forward while exhaling. Then turn your head to the side. Inhale like you normally do in the pool. Sight frequently. Accurate sighting can  save an athlete time and energy
  • Position yourself in your wave according to your ability. If you are a strong swimmer set yourself up behind faster swimmers to catch a draft. What this means is swimming directly behind, or to the side of and behind, another swimmer. You will expend less energy. Also, you’ll have a faster split if you are able to pace behind someone slightly faster than you. A newbie should consider lining up on the outside edge of their wave to get a clearer view for the swim. Also, should wait a few seconds after the start. That way people are less likely to run into you when the gun goes off
  • If you are not able to practice open water run transitions you should in the pool. An example workout is to warm up 10 minutes then swim 100 yards or meters at race pace. Then immediately hop out of the water and jog in place to simulate going form horizontal to vertical position with a high heart rate.

Each time your practice swimming in open water swimming, you will achieve a different experience to take with you race day.




Posted on Categories Swimming, TriathlonTags , , , ,
Wendy Mader MS, TRX, ACE, Ironman Certified and BeachBody Coach The Author of “How to Swim Faster in 30 Days: A Free-Style Guide to Dropping Time” Check out her coaching and training programs
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