For many first-time triathletes, an open water swim can be intimidating. With no pool-bottom stripes to guide you and the frenzy of the other athletes splashing around you, an open water swim is a whole other experience! It is not a swimming pool with a bottom you can touch or even see, many times it is cold. Those qualities are enough to freak out even the toughest athletes. We all have stories about our first open water swim experience. My first triathlon in Ann Arbor Michigan in 1992 was my first open water swim experience. The water was dirty and warm. I just wanted to swim as fast as I could because I could not see anything and was pretty freaked out. For the next couple years all triathlons in the mid west were swim in a lake and with experience open water was not scary anymore.
My first open water swim experience in Colorado, 1995, was different. I had lived here for 2 months and signed up for the Evergreen Half Iron Distance Triathlon, at altitude, which is a little chillier then Michigan Lakes. I did not warm up, took my first plunge when the horn sounded, my breath was taken away. I swam most of the distance with my head out of the water and even approached a kayak and considered jumping aboard. I did not have a wetsuit.
Fast forward to 2013 and every City offers open water swim clinics. There is no excuse not to be ready. With the right kind of preparation, the swim can be the easiest part of your event! The cardinal rule of triathlon is "Never do anything new on race day." This includes swimming in open water! Below are my 5 tips to have a successful experience.
- Invest in a wetsuit. Wetsuits will certainly keep you warmer in cold water, but the added buoyancy will also keep you high in the water. There are two common styles of triathlon wetsuits: full sleeve and sleeveless. With the additional coverage, a full sleeve wetsuit will be faster, warmer, and more buoyant in the water than a sleeveless one. You want to practice putting on and getting off your wetsuit and swimming in it before your event to ensure it fits and you can comfortable stroke while wearing it.
- Catch your breath. If the race venue allows, warm up for at least 15 minutes before your wave start time. This includes getting in and out of the water 4 times. Slowly wade out into the water until you're about waist deep and water seeps into your wetsuit, then get out. The second go under once to get wet and get used to the temperature, especially if it's cold, then get out. The third time practice bobbing, breathing (exhale immediately under water before you inhale). Exhale completely before coming up. Do this a few times until it's comfortable, then get out. The fourth time take some arm strokes and practice sighting.
- Practice sighting. 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 and inhale like you normally do in the pool. Try not to lift your head completely out of the water as this will cause your hips and legs to sink. During your event sight every stroke until you round the first buoy to ensure you are swimming straight and on track not to swim more than the race distance.
- Position yourself in your wave. Know the course. Ease your anxiety race-day and consider lining up on the outside edge of your wave to get a clearer view for the swim. You can also wait a few seconds after the start for an easier swimming position. That way people are less likely to run into you in the water.
- Draft during the race. Drafting is legal during the swim portion of the triathlon. What this means is swimming directly behind, or to the side of and behind, another swimmer. You will expend less energy and have a faster split if you are able to pace behind someone slightly faster than you. We are all looking for free speed, right?