Participating in an open water triathlon or open water swimming competition can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. The swimming portion of the race presents its own set of challenges and requires specific preparation.
Training in open water requires certain gear that you won’t need when pool swimming. There are dangers of swimming in open water. Pick your swimming locations carefully and be sure you’re properly outfitted if this is the first time you’re swimming outside.
I’ve found many open-water swimming tips that have helped me race faster in most open-water venues. I want to share them with you so you can swim like Lucy Charles-Barclay.
Start Slow and Find Your Rhythm
The one-word description I use for most open-water starts is “chaos”. Some people refer to it as being in a washing machine. You are going to be hit, poked, grabbed, and kicked by all the other nervous athletes. You’ll also simultaneously be trying to breathe and the waves will be splashing water over your face. Sounds fun, right?
Everybody is nervous and excited before the swim portion of a big race, especially first timers. Some people are terrified. They might hyperventilate and resort to doggie paddling in their panic. Some just stop and begin treading water. I’ve seen it plenty of times.
The unfamiliarity of not having a black line to follow or lane lines separating swimmers may be a trigger for some people. Their fear may actually put them in a dangerous situation. They might have spent all their time pool swimming and showed up unprepared for this event. You should be aware that other swimmers may not be as calm as you.
The key to performing well is to start slow and find your rhythm. Force yourself to swim slower than you anticipated. Let people pass you but keep your rhythm slow and methodical. Just find your rhythm and settle into a sustainable stroke after a few minutes.
Your body may also need to adjust to the environment. Cold water is difficult for everyone. Just take it slow and conserve your energy. After about five minutes of swimming, you’ll be in a good rhythm and you can increase your pace if necessary. Related – Pace chart for running.
Starting slow will help conserve energy while keeping your heart rate down. Starting too fast can lead to exhaustion and compromise your overall performance.
Benefit: lower heart rate, energy conservation
Master Bilateral Breathing
Bilateral breathing, where you are able to breathe on either side of your body, will help you immensely in open water swimming. You need to practice this extensively while pool swimming before trying it in open water.
You should learn to breathe bilaterally for three main reasons: waves, sunlight, and sighting.
Fewer Waves In Your Face
Waves can create moments of limited visibility, especially when they crash or break near the surface. Bilateral breathing allows you to alternate your breathing side, giving you a better chance to time your breaths between waves.
If the waves are coming from the left, you can breathe to the right and avoid being smacked directly in the face and missing a breath. You’ll minimize the chances of inhaling water or being caught off guard.
Waves can be intimidating, especially for inexperienced open-water swimmers. Bilateral breathing helps build confidence and mental resilience in the face of waves. A calm swimmer is a fast swimmer.
Avoid Sunlight In Your Eyes
Bilateral breathing can be beneficial when facing the challenge of the sun in your eyes during open-water swimming. Glare from the sun can affect your visibility and disrupt your swimming rhythm.
Keep the sun out of your eyes by breathing to the side that is away from the glare. If the swim course is an out-and-back loop, the sun will be on one side going out and the opposite side coming in. Be ready for it.
Sighting Off Other Athletes
Breathing on the left or right side allows me to gauge my distance to the shore or other landmarks if we swim parallel to the beach. Maintaining my distance with every breath allows me to stay on my desired course and conserve energy.
I may also want to stay a certain proximity away from another swimmer. Being able to see the distance with every breath is incredibly helpful and calming.
Benefit: less disruption to the breathing cycle, better sighting
Train At Your Race Location
Nothing will prepare you better than practicing in the same conditions as a race. Practice makes perfect, and swimming routinely in open water will help you tremendously on race day.
Seek out opportunities to swim in open water environments such as lakes, oceans, or even designated open-water swim areas. Familiarize yourself with factors like currents, waves, and navigation to gain confidence and adapt your swimming technique accordingly.
Be sure to wear a swim cap and pull buoy for safety reasons, especially if there are boaters nearby.
If you have an upcoming race, try to practice in that location. The more comfortable you are in the open water the more relaxed you’ll be. And relaxed equals fast.
Benefit: calmer on race day
Practice in a Group Setting
Open water triathlons often involve a mass swim start with numerous participants, which can be overwhelming if you’re not accustomed to swimming near others. Practicing in a group offers unique advantages that can significantly enhance your open water swim training.
Join group training sessions or find local open-water swimming clubs where you can practice swimming alongside other athletes. You’ll get a ton of benefits from this environment.
Safety and Support
Swimming with a group provides an added layer of safety and support. In case of any unforeseen circumstances, such as cramps or fatigue, having fellow swimmers nearby can provide immediate assistance and ensure your well-being.
Additionally, training with others fosters a supportive environment where you can share experiences, learn from each other, and receive encouragement when facing challenges. The shared enthusiasm and motivation within a group can help you push your limits and achieve new heights in your open water swimming journey.
Drafting and Technique Improvement
Group training in open water presents an excellent opportunity to practice drafting, which can’t be done in a pool. This is the art of swimming in the slipstream of another swimmer to reduce resistance and conserve energy.
By swimming in close proximity to your training partners, you can experience the benefits of drafting and refining your technique. Observing and mimicking the movements of more experienced swimmers can help you improve your body position, stroke efficiency, and overall swim mechanics.
Group training enables a dynamic learning environment where you can receive feedback and guidance from your peers and coaches, fostering continual improvement in your open water swimming skills.
Simulating Race Conditions
Open water swim races can be intense and fast-paced, often with large groups of swimmers vying for positions. Training in a group setting can help replicate race conditions more effectively than solo sessions.
When you practice in close proximity to most open water swimmers, you become accustomed to the physical contact, navigation challenges, and strategic decision-making that are integral to open water racing.
Group training allows you to refine your race strategies, practice overtaking or being overtaken, and develop the mental resilience needed to stay focused amidst a crowded field. The simulated race environment within a group prepares you for the dynamic nature of open water swim competitions.
Benefit: calmer on race day, faster swim splits
Prepare Mentally for Contact
In the midst of a crowded swim start, contact with other swimmers is inevitable. Prepare yourself mentally for the physicality of the swim leg and practice maintaining your composure.
I’ve had a faster swimmer actually grab my leg and use it to pull himself up and over me in an Ironman race. It was shocking that a fellow competitor would do something so blatant, but it makes you aware of the warzone mentality some people bring. It probably won’t happen to you, but just be ready for a little gladiator contact with fellow swimmers.
Stay focused on your technique and swim your own race, avoiding unnecessary collisions or altercations. Remember that contact is a normal part of open water triathlons and learning to navigate through it is crucial. Most contact is in the first portion of the race and swimmers will generally settle down after about five to ten minutes.
Some people practice this in a swimming pool with 3 people in a lane. You’ll get used to how to handle it fairly quickly.
If you need help reducing anxiety in moments like these, we recommend using cold plunge tubs. The shock you must overcome will help you develop a zen-like attitude on race day.
Benefit: lower chance of freaking out during a race
Practice Sighting and Proper Navigation
Open-water swimming requires efficient navigation to avoid driving off course. Practice sighting by lifting your head slightly out of the water every few strokes to locate buoys, landmarks, or other race markers. Work on developing a sighting rhythm to minimize disruption to your stroke. This whole process can be rehearsed in your local swimming pool.
I tend to latch onto a faster swimming group and draft off of them. They will all be sighting efficiently, so I actually make sure I just follow them. There’s a risk to doing this (since I’m trusting their abilities), but you’ll know quickly if they’re the wrong group to follow.
Additionally, study the race course map beforehand to familiarize yourself with the route and any potential landmarks to guide you.
Benefit: faster swim splits, lower distance to swim
It took me a few years to get this correct, but it drastically helps your swim times when done correctly.
I have found that if you line up with people a bit faster than you, and swim like mad for 300 yards, the pace will slow down a bit after that. You’ll be with a faster (than your average pace) group that you can draft off of and improve your swim time.
I’ve seen this same behavior in swimming, running, and cycling races. The pace is crazy fast for the first bit then settles into a more reasonable pace once the pack gets sorted out. It’s uncanny how it happens every time.
Take advantage of drafting opportunities by positioning yourself slightly behind or to the side of a swimmer. Hopefully, the water is clear enough for you to see them. Practice this technique during your training sessions to maximize its benefits.
NOTE – Do not line up with the swimmers that are competing for the overall win if you don’t belong with them. You’ll get swum over pretty quickly and could possibly interfere with someone else’s race.
Benefit: faster swim times
Wearing a Wetsuit Can Make You Faster
If you’re swimming in a cold water environment, you should consider a triathlon wetsuit as standard swimming gear.
Get accustomed to the tightness around your neck, restricted shoulder movement, and the unique feel of a wetsuit to ensure it doesn’t hinder your swimming efficiency on race day.
NOTE – Do not wear a wetsuit when the water is warm. You can overheat. Use them for cold water only.
Buoyancy and Flotation
One of the primary benefits of wearing a wetsuit is the enhanced buoyancy it provides. You will float in a wetsuit to a large extent. The best part is that extra floatation will put you in the perfect position while swimming.
You stay higher on the water’s surface, reducing drag and increasing your efficiency. This buoyancy also will require less energy, allowing you to maintain a more streamlined position, optimize your stroke, and swim with greater ease. Less water resistance equals a faster swim.
If the race is a deep water start where you are treading water before the start, the extra buoyancy really helps.
The improved buoyancy also helps calm your nerves a bit for many people. Calm and relaxed means fast.
Protection and Safety
I competed in an open water swim that had jellyfish everywhere. I got stung four times during the swim. In this case, I was wearing a sleeveless wetsuit, and my arms were unprotected. If I had known it was jellyfish mating season, I would have opted for a full wetsuit.
Some people weren’t wearing a wetsuit at all and I cringe when I think about what happened to them. You can’t always control the environment, but you can prepare for it.
Speed and Performance
Wetsuits are slick. You can glide through the water with less effort and improved efficiency. Combine this with your improved horizontal alignment (due to the buoyancy), and you can achieve personal bests in a lot of open water races.
Benefit: higher confidence during the swim, faster swim time
Strategize the Swim Exit
Study the layout of the transition area in a triathlon and the swim exit location before the race. You don’t want to have any confusion on race day. If you have to think or allow confusion to enter your mind, you’ll lose precious seconds to your competitors.
Practice removing your wetsuit and swim cap, and where you’ll put them.
Visualize this portion of the race. Your familiarity will save valuable time and minimize disorientation during the transition.
Benefit: faster overall race time, more confidence ending the swim
Stay Calm and Enjoy the Experience
Lastly, remember to stay calm and enjoy the experience.
Nervousness is normal, but channel your energy into positive thoughts and focus on your training. Embrace the opportunity to swim in the open water, soak in the atmosphere of the race, and appreciate the journey you’ve undertaken. In short, enjoy the great outdoors!
Open water swimming and triathlons are as much about personal growth as they are about competition, so savor every moment.
Benefit: lower heart rate, more positive overall mindset
Swimming in an open-water triathlon can be an exhilarating and challenging experience. Stay composed, pace yourself wisely, and enjoy the journey.
Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to me at no cost to you if you decide to purchase the product. This site is not intended to provide medical advice and you should always consult with a physician before beginning any physical activity.