Conquering a triathlon's open water swim

March 19, 2012 at 9:04 p.m.
Updated March 18, 2012 at 10:19 p.m.

The swim portion of triathlon is typically the most challenging aspect for most triathletes, especially when it is held in the open water.

With temperatures warming up, most triathlons will now have the swim portion of the race held in the open water.

If you are new to triathlon, or perhaps a more seasoned triathlete who never became proficient at the open water swim, now is the perfect time to become more comfortable with this segment.

The waters are warming up a bit so that practicing in open water, either with or without a wetsuit, is now a conceivable option. The more you practice in the open water, the less likely fear will take over, causing a bad experience in your first open water swim.

So, before taking on the challenge, here are some tips to help get started.

Practice in the pool

The first step is to become proficient in the pool. When race day comes, and the horn blows, you want to be confident enough in your swim that you can maintain form when your focus quickly turns to the confusion around you.

When you set up your triathlon race schedule, allow yourself enough time to become acquainted with the water and build up your swim distance to the point that you can swim the distance of your upcoming event in a nonstop manner.

Ideally you should be able to swim 25 to 50 percent more than what you will be swimming in your event because with the mental aspect of the swim, it is better to be over prepared and confident.

Practice makes perfect, so swim two to three times per week and choose one problem area to focus on each swim workout. By being conscious of your position in the water, and with constant practice, a more efficient swim stroke will be produced.

Tackling the open water

Review the swim course. When you first arrive at the race site, typically the day before, look for large, stationary objects that can be used. This could be a building, an electric pole, or other large object that is more easily visible during the middle of a swim.

Swim part of the course the day before to become familiar with placing of the course buoys, and especially the buoys that are placed for the turns.

How to swim in a straight line

Sighting well and swimming in a straight line will make all the difference in how quickly you get through.

Again, focus on extending your arm in a straight line out from the shoulder to prevent overreaching and causing drift in your stroke pattern.

Also, avoid swinging your arms out to the side, which will have the same effect.

You will need to lift your head up slightly to sight to get a "snapshot" of the direction you need to head in, and then visualize as you put your head back into the water to head that way. Try to avoid lifting your head up too high when sighting as this will cause the hips and legs to fall causing drag and slowing momentum.

There are two ways to lift the head up to sight: 1) Separate sighting from your breathing on the stroke, meaning you would take one stroke to sight and the next stroke would be devoted to taking a breath. 2) Take one arm cycle to sight and to breathe, this is the most efficient method.

Prepare for the start

When you go to sight, your eyes will rotate with the arm stroke to face to the front and sight, then, as the head begins to move to the water, you would take your breath. Don't breathe first then sight, this takes more effort and can be confusing to the stroke pattern. I like to give my clients workouts that simulate swim starts in the weeks leading up to the race.

At the start of a race, your adrenaline is pumping, heart rate is racing, and your respirations for the first 50 to 200 meters are elevated.

To simulate the feeling of a race start, do several sets of 50 to 100 meters fast with an equal segment of steady swimming.

Traveling with a group to practice the open water swim is also a good idea. It simulates drafting off of others and getting a feel for what it is like to be surrounded by other swimmers. You can simulate this in a pool by throwing a variety of swim buoys, swim noodles, and other floating objects into the water.

Lastly, make sure that you get some practice time in your wetsuit, so you are accustomed to the way it feels in the water. Sometimes wetsuits will fit snuggly across the neck region, and it is always a good idea to know how it will fit and feel in the water.

Practice makes perfect. With the above tips and some work, you will be on your way to becoming more proficient and comfortable with the open water.

Missy Janzow received her B.S. in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and owns Fit4U, a personalized coaching and nutrition business that serves to train the novice or seasoned triathlete or runner. You can reach her for your questions at



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