The very thought of open water swimming is intimidating to a lot of people, but as a triathlete, it’s a fact that the majority of races are held in bodies of open water. Depending on the part of the country you live in, early season races held in pools, come to an end when the signs of summer start to appear. So what makes it so intimidating? Well, for one, there’s no line on the bottom to follow, no wall to hold on to and usually after a few strokes, no bottom to rest on to catch a breath. Plus, most of the time you can’t see “what’s down there.” You have to go in with a mental attitude and confidence level that says, “I can do this, I’m a decent swimmer and I can always float if I need a break.” This is a good time to point out, No Swimming Alone! Ever!
I’ll point out some of the things you’ll want to know, and need to know before you get your toes wet.
The Body of Water
Is swimming allowed at the location you’re considering? Are there any hazards (currents, sink holes, debris, etc.) you need to know about? Some lakes, ponds or rivers may have a designated swim area that might not be large enough for getting those longer laps in. You’ll want to know if it’s legal to swim outside this area, as fines can be imposed for doing so. Ask other triathletes what the rules are. Chances are you’ll be meeting up with a group to swim right along with them.
Is the water regularly tested for swim quality? The last thing you want is a “bug” that shuts down your training schedule. The agency responsible for that location should have this data online or at least able to quickly find it for you. High amounts of rainfall over short periods of time can change a water’s quality quite quickly. Be aware of this and make alternate plans if necessary. Brown or muddy water is a good sign things have been stirred up lately.
Your agency would usually have this information too. Will temperatures require you to don a wetsuit? Cold temperatures for one person may feel very comfortable for another. Most triathlon shops have a rental program or can direct you to someone who does. Just make sure the wetsuit is designed for swimming, not diving or wakeboarding. There really is a difference here.
You may get lucky and know someone who has an extra suit you can borrow, but we triathletes can be pretty hesitant about loaning our suits out. Outside of anything related to bike gear, it’s the next most expensive piece of race equipment we own, and it doesn’t take much to put a fingernail through it or split a seam. Most shops will rent for several days, and apply part of your rental fees toward a future purchase. If you find a suit that fits particularly well, and you want to rent it for an upcoming race, call them ahead of time and most shops will reserve it for you.
A product called Bodyglide will reduce chaffing in key spots like the underarms or around the neck of the suit. It will also make removing the suit easier if applied to wrists and ankles. Do NOT use any petroleum based products on your wetsuit, as they will destroy some types of neoprene. This includes Vaseline.
Safety and Comfort
It’s a good idea to wear the brightest (think day-glo, neon, tie-dye, etc.) swim cap you own or can buy. You will be much more visible for those on shore or in the water with you. Since you’ll be outdoors, have a pair of goggles that will cut down on bright sunlight, or glare and reflection off the water. I like a metalized or mirrored finish on those clear mornings when the sun is low and you’re swimming into the glare for that next buoy.
Planning Your Route
Just like any training session, your open water swim should have a purpose. How long will it be? What route or direction (out-and-back, circular around buoys, etc) will the group take? Will you be re-grouping at any point? Talk to the others and find out what the general plan is. If you are not comfortable going as far or as long as the others, make your intentions known. Don’t be afraid to ask if someone might swim at your pace or for your distance alongside you. If you get no takers to help you out, you’re swimming with the wrong group. Once you’re out on the route, if you decide to change your plan, it’s absolutely necessary that you tell someone in the group. Even better if you tell two people. Everyone should be aware of everyone else, and follow up to make sure you all get out of the water safely.
At this point, the wetsuit might feel a little restrictive especially around the chest. Get in the water and take a little time to get used to the temperature. Let the water enter your wetsuit through the neck, wrists or legs. I do this by grabbing the sleeve at the wrist, pulling it opened and closed to pump the water up my arms. Same for the ankles. This gets a lubricating layer of water against your skin, and the water warms up to keep your body warmer. Once you’re completely wet inside the suit, you’ll notice how much more comfortable the suit feels, and at this point you can make adjustments in the elbows, armpits and knees.
Sighting and Navigating in Open Water
Since you now know what the intended course is, how are you going to get from Point-A to Point-B? From the water level, it can be quite difficult to see smaller buoys or floating objects also at water level. Your best bet is to sight off of a distinct feature on the horizon or landscape ahead of you that aligns with your intended target. This makes it easier to navigate while swimming, rather than having to stop, look for your target, then start again. This also allows you to just take a quick peek forward every so often to check your progress. With practice, you’ll be able to sight and still maintain a good rhythm while making slight course corrections.
As you swim with your group, see what it feels like to get close to others, whether behind them or alongside. This is called drafting, and can save a fair amount of energy over a long swim. Let others draft off you, and have them tap your toes every once in awhile. The swim can sometimes be classified as a contact sport. In the case of a mass start, like an Ironman event with 2000+ competitors, it can almost be called a “combat” sport. This takes some getting used, but as with anything, practice makes the difference. Swimming in tight groups builds experience on what to look out for to avoid getting hurt.
Exiting The Water
Because you’ve been in a horizontal position for some time, you may feel dizzy when you first return to shore. This is more common than you might think, and it’s not a symptom of being a novice. Try to first stand when you are in chest-level water, as the water will support you while you “get your legs back” before exiting completely. Remember the water I talked about that acts as a lubricant inside your wetsuit? It also makes it much, much easier to get your wetsuit off. As you exit the water, peel it down to about waist level and pull your arms free. From there, you can stand on firm ground or lean against something to get your legs out. If you are going to step on the opposite leg of the suit while pulling your other leg out, do so very carefully.
Rinse and Repeat
Make sure you rinse out the wetsuit with fresh water as soon as possible, and always hang it to dry completely before folding and storing. I always turn mine inside out to dry, as the inner fabric tends to hold more moisture than the outer, smooth skin. Try not to fold your wetsuit any more than in half if storing for an extended period.
As you get more comfortable in open water and in your wetsuit, practice taking the wetsuit off as quickly as you can. This is good training for making a smooth transition from the swim to the bike. Before you know it, you won’t miss the smell of chlorine.