Swimming in open-water is very different from swimming in a pool. Underwater visibility, water currents, temperature, and maintaining the correct direction are just a few of the challenges.
Here are some tips for open-water swimming for triathletes:
Practice in Open-Water
There’s nothing better to prepare you for swimming in open-water than taking the plunge…. literally. Find a nearby body of water and swim. Always be sure to swim with other competent swimmers and stay close to the land to begin. Also, be sure to wear a brightly colored cap so that fellow swimmers and boaters can spot you.
If it’s possible to swim in the same location as the triathlon race, do it! If you can also swim at the same time of day that the race, that’s even better. That way, you can see if the position of the sun is likely to impede your sighting. Swimming toward the sun at sunrise can be blinding.
If you can’t practice at the same location as the race, try picking a body of water that is as similar to the event location. If you know that the event will allow wetsuits and you plan on wearing one, then practice with it.
Learn to Sight
Sighting means spotting the buoy or race marker to help you stay on course. This can be a challenge, but it is essential to learn this skill. You can practice your sighting technique in a pool by lifting your head a couple of times each length and spotting an object at the end of the lane. Once you spot the object, return to a neutral swimming position because swimming like a water polo player, with your head looking forward, consumes a lot of energy.
Also, practice making quick and efficient turns around buoys to maintain your speed and stay on course. Depending on the event, the turning points may be congested. If so, it may be worth taking a slightly wider path to avoid other swimmers.
Learn to Draft
Take advantage of drafting behind other swimmers to save energy and reduce drag. It’s estimated that drafting on the swim reduces effort by as much as 38%! You can draft by swimming directly behind another swimmer or to the side. Again, this is something you can practice beforehand. Practice groups will often take turns drafting off of each other.
Remember not to get too close to the swimmer you are drafting off and be sure not to constantly hit their feet. That’s annoying.
Build Your Endurance
It’s important to learn to build “swim endurance,” even if you have the endurance for your run and bike. To do this, gradually increase the distance of your swims over time. Also, use interval training in the pool and adjust to keep moving. So, to start, you may try to swim 800 yards as 32 x 25 yd swims with 10 seconds rest between each. The next time, you may switch to 15 x 50 yd swims with 15 seconds of rest. Keep adjusting the distances and rest intervals until you are swimming a straight 800-yard swim.
Learn Your Pace
It’s common for beginner triathletes to start their swim too fast. The adrenaline of the race kicks in and they start swimming like Michael Phelps. Remember, the goal of the swim is to conserve energy. By giving an extra 10% effort on the swim, you may drop an extra 30 seconds, or so. The same extra 10% effort on the run or bike will probably drop several minutes.
One tip to help you remain calm on race day is to find a song with the same tempo as your swim stroke. Find this song when you are practicing a relaxing stroke. As you enter the water on race day, think of this song and match the tempo. (Silly, I know, but it works to keep your stroke in check.)