These are my MAPS to preparing you for open water swimming (OWS) in triathlon, gleaned through years of experience among bodies of water and athletes alike. I'm a World Open Water Swimming Association Certified Coach & Official -- the sport in which people who ought to be certified themselves (in a manner of speaking) practice their insanity through mile, 5K, 10K, and don't-even-want-to-mention-them other distance races.
MAPS stands for Meditation, Acclimatization, Practice, Strategy. You may not need, want, or be able to do all of what's outlined in MAPS, nor is this a comprehensive encyclopedia of open water swimming, but these are good guidelines to help prepare you for what can (and in my opinion should) be an enjoyable and thrilling experience: the open-water swim leg of a triathlon.
I’m no yogi—but this can work if you can’t play in an ocean every day (works even if you can). Swimming requires mental focus. Few of us have done as much swimming as walking, running or biking, meaning that swimming is going to be far less intuitive, and so much of swimming is technique (form), including breathing. In particular, breathing meditation provides a serious advantage in swimming, particularly open-water swimming, which adds layers of strategy and conditions to pool swimming.
There are many kinds of breathing practice and meditation (feel free to Google). Most of them will do, but this is what I do for 5-10 minutes every day:
Why do this every day?
Like all else, it's a lot easier and more effective when practiced. Practice it on dry land, and it's a lot easier to do during a tough swim workout. Practice it on dry land and during tough spots in swim workouts, and it's a lot easier to apply it in a high-intensity race situation. As a side benefit, this is also awesome to do during cycling and running when you're struggling. Overall, it helps you stay calm and be efficient instead of feeling like you're battling your body, the elements, and the course or workout.
Now, here's where it's really key: The Race.
Do this meditation while you are standing on shore (or wherever you are) before the swim. It will calm your nerves and put you in a good state of mind to get into a large, deep body of water with dozens of thrashing solid bodies around you. This is even more key: CONTINUE TO DO THE BREATHING even after you get into the water! Go only as fast as continuing the breathing focus will allow (another good reason to practice it on dry land and during your swim workouts beforehand). This makes a huge difference in controlling the initial heart rate spike, going out way too hard, and possible sensations of panic that many new triathletes experience during the swim portion. Once you're doing fine and swimming as well as you can, then go for it! Even if you never quite feel like you even out, you will have had a far smoother, less energy-expending and probably faster swim than if you didn't do breathing meditation. That's particularly important when you've still got a gut-busting bike and run to go.
Finally, VISUALIZE your swim.
Do it often. Do it for as long as the swim might take, if you can. Your body physically responds to mentally imagined cues, and this will help your body respond the way you want it to on race day. Visualize the course, the weather; visualize the gun going off and the feeling of the water and temperature as you enter and begin to swim. Visualize any problems you may have and visualize handling them smoothly and quickly.
This is particularly important if you’re looking at doing a triathlon in cooler water, and it’s somewhat related to the next part of MAPS (Practice). You need to get used to the feeling of breath control and/or exertion while being submerged in water that’s colder than your body.
The more open-water experience you can get, the better. Once is still infinitely better than nothing. Your local swim club, Masters swimming, or triathlon group may offer open-water practices or even clinics. Take advantage of this! Even if you have to set a day aside and travel a distance to get there, it’s more than worth it.
If you really cannot get to open water before your race, find a cold pool to practice in. Try to do this even if your race is in warmer water, simply because the sensation of swimming in a cold pool can help you get used to the feeling of breath being taken away and tightness in your chest that is common in newer open-water swimmers regardless of water temperature.
On race day, if at all possible, get in the water to swim and warm up. The closer to the start the better, but just getting in is good. Really get your face/head in there and SWIM. If you only have time to get in and out, then dunk your head in and breathe out. Turn, breathe in, head back in water, breathe out.
If that’s truly not possible, squirt and splash your face with lots of cold water beforehand. Get it in your hair and under your cap.
Unless you have no access or just one shot at an open-water swim practice before your race (in which case you should definitely pay more attention to M, A, and below), GET IN OPEN WATER AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Swim in it. Swim hard. Play in it. If there are waves, learn how to duck under them/get through them, or if there’s chop in open water, to swim over them (a higher or straighter-arm recovery may be necessary). Get comfortable with breathing on either side.
Try swimming in groups.
Sometimes, the 'washing machine' of a swim start or the contact when separate waves of athletes start to swim into each other is exaggerated. But if you’re not confident in the water, a foot to the face, dislodged goggles, a giant suckful of salt water, and a wave in your face on the very next breath (all at once!) can quickly become serious. Will all sorts of crazy stuff happen to you on the swim? Possibly. Will some of it happen to you eventually on the swim? Absolutely. Might it happen during your first tri? Yup! Be prepared!
Here are some possibilities for practice in a pool.
And the one thing you will certainly have to do in every open water swim: Sighting. To practice in a pool:
Again, there’s much more to open-water swimming than I can write in a concise article, but training using these MAPS will give you confidence and skills in the swim game. Having a smooth swim puts you in optimal position for good execution on the bike and run, too, instead of having expended a bunch of energy on the swim that taxes you and might cause you to use some of the bike to recover instead of race.
Good luck to you—it will come from good preparation!
I am interested in almost everything, except Danielle Steel novels and golf.