Preparing for Your First Open Water Swim

Competing in an open water swim for the first time, either as a stand-alone race or as a portion of a triathlon, can be an intimidating prospect.  Here are some general tips to get you started.

1)      Brush Up Your Technique: The absolute first thing you should do is get your technique in order. Take lessons with a respected coach or join a Master’s Swim Team.  Many swimming “newbies” have trouble with their kick as a result of poor ankle flexibility, so I recommend swimming with a pair of Z2 Zoomers.  For those who are planning on an ocean swim or wearing a wetsuit, the addition of fins also simulates the effect that additional buoyancy has on your stroke.

2)      Hit the Pool For Interval Training: One of the most common mistakes for first-time open water swimmers is that they practice by doing long uninterrupted swims in the open water or the pool. On the contrary, interval and speed work is just as important as ever! Instead of doing a straight 1,500m (1 mile), try breaking it up into 200s, 100s, and 50s. Quality sets (high intensity with long rest) will improve your threshold speed and make you faster even during long races. Sets of repeats on a short rest improve your endurance and make you work a little harder than straight swims.

3)      Get Some Open Water Practice: Attend clinics and group swims, but always do so with safety in mind. Swim parallel to the shore in swim areas attended to by a lifeguard.  If you have one race in particular in mind, try to find a “practice” race you can do beforehand. The open water is a completely different scenario than the pool, and the best way to learn is to do! Practice sighting and swimming straight. Wear the swimsuit or wetsuit you plan on wearing during your race, and take note of the fit and any areas that are prone to chaffing.  Vaseline or an anti-chaffing product can reduce chaffing, but DO NOT use Vaseline if you are wearing a wetsuit!

4)      Work On Your Backstroke: Anxiety in open water is very common, even for experienced open water swimmers.  If you begin to feel anxious, roll over on your back and swim easy backstroke until you feel better.  This gives you an opportunity to catch your breath!

5)      Research: Talk to experienced open water swimmers.  Usually they are more than happy to share with you what they’ve learned over the years through trial and error.  Read books, blogs, and discussion boards on the topic. Whenever possible check out the venue in advance, even if it is just the morning of!  Find out what kind of a start and finish it will be.  For beach starts and finishes, inspect the ocean or lake floor for pitch, rocks, seaweed, etc.  Swim out to the buoys and take note of how many there are and landmarks to aid in navigation.

6)      Prepare Yourself for Bodily Contact, and Know Your Limits: Depending on the race and the number of registrants,  starts can be an all-out dogfight coming out of the gate.  If this is something you are prepared for, go for it!  If you are slower or more prone to anxiety, just hang tight in the back until things calm down.  Be prepared for the challenges presented by “pack swimming” both unintentional and intentional.  Small preparations such as putting your goggles on under your cap, adhering them with duct tape, or greasing up your ankles can go a long way in fending off competitor contact.

The more prepared you are going into your first open water swim, the more likely you are to have a pleasant experience.  Here’s to swimming the way nature intended it!

-Mallory Mead
Open Water Marathon Swimmer
Indianapolis, Indiana