Six Open Water Swimming Tips

author : alicefoeller
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Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced

Many athletes struggle to find or afford a pool in normal times, but during the Covid-19 pandemic, even triathletes who have the budget for a pool membership and live in a major metro area may be closed out of their gyms or pools periodically.

Swimming in open water is a great way to continue swim training, if you are able to find open water in your area.

In many states, state parks and campgrounds are situated on reservoirs that have public beaches. Often these beaches are nearly empty at sunrise, populated only by distance swimmers plying the water in long stretches along the shore. Oceanside states also have a lot of access to water, although it can be more dangerous to navigate rip tides and sea creatures.

No matter your skill level and experience with open water swimming, this may be the push you need to jump into the non-chlorinated waters and see what you're made of. We always encourage triathletes to be sure their first race is not also their first open water swim. Many swimmers become anxious when they can't see into murky water, or they become fearful of fish or some seaweed brushing their leg. Others haven't practiced sighting and veer well off course.

So consider the pandemic your inspiration to tackle open water swimming and learn to love it!

Beginner Tips

1. A safety buoy and a buddy.

Grab yourself an inflatable safety buoy for $20 or $30. Although they are not a personal flotation device, most are large enough to allow you to relax in the water if you need a break, or to hold up your chest if you have a coughing fit. The buoys strap around your waist and float gently behind you. Although they add a little resistance, they also help boats to be able to see you. And even if you have a safety buoy, always swim with a buddy. If you really can't find a nearby swimmer to coordinate with, check with your local triathlon clubs and choose a swimming location that is populated by other swimmers in the early mornings. Make friends with someone else entering the water, and make a deal to check on each other after each length of the beach.

2. Secure your stuff

Unlike a run or a bike, where you can leave your keys and wallet at home or in a gym locker, open water swimming creates a challenge for securing your personal items. Most open water swimmers lock their valuables in their car, leave a towel and sandals near the water, and find a place to hide their car key. Make sure no one is watching when you stash your key, or slide it into the waterproof dry bag that is built into many safety buoys.

Intermediate Tips

3. Sighting on big, far-away objects

During races, triathletes often look for the next buoy along the course to stay on track. Buoys at races tend to be oversized, blow-up affairs. Without a race, most open water swimmers rely on typical "no wake" buoys, which are much smaller and harder to spot while swimming. Instead of spending a lot of time with your head out of the water, looking for a skinny buoy, try choosing a much larger object farther away.

Swim out away from the shore a safe distance, and then look toward your destination. Is there a tree or cell phone tower in the distance you can line up on? Often you'll find something that's easy to spot from the water. As you swim in the morning or evening, you'll also notice the sun in your eyes on one side or the other. Although it seems annoying, the sun is handy for keeping you on track. You can notice easily if the blinding sun used to be on your right side and now seems to be ahead of you, and correct your course.

4. Bilateral Breathing

Speaking of having the sun in your eyes, a peaceful morning or evening swim is the perfect time to practice breathing on both sides. Most swimmers favor one side for breathing, causing their stroke to become uneven. Worse, if there is another triathlete next to you in a race, or the sun is in your eyes, you won't have the option of switching to the opposite side for breathing unless you've already become comfortable with it.

Take the opportunity to practice breathing on both sides. A good breathing pattern is: Breathe right, stroke left, stroke right, breathe left, stroke right, breathe LEFT AGAIN, stroke right, stroke left, breathe right. And repeat. This puts you in a 2-3-2-3 breathing pattern that keeps you from losing your breath but also lets you switch sides every other breath.

Advanced Tips

5. Rounding a buoy

If you'd like to show off, and round a buoy very quickly without clawing around in an arc, you can practice swimming right up to the buoy, flipping onto your back for a second as your entering arm spears into the water and anchors you. Turn your body 90 degrees, flipping the rest of the way over onto your stomach again, and take the next stroke. You'll have come around the buoy in two strokes at a hard right angle. It takes practice, but is impressive and efficient!

6. Sighting on the hand entry

Many triathletes "sight" (look up to orient themselves) at the same time they are taking a breath. This makes their breathing stroke sloppy and pulls their head unnecessarily high out of the water. Imagine trying to look ahead of you, and raising your head high enough that your mouth is clear of the water so you can breathe. Now instead, imagine facing forward but lifting your head just enough so you have "alligator eyes" and you can see but your nose and mouth are still submerged. The second option is much better because your legs don't sink and you don't slow down as much.

The trick is to perform the alligator eyes movement just as your hand is entering the water, but not on a breathing stroke. For example, you might breathe right, stroke left, sight ahead of you with alligator eyes on your next stroke, and then put your head back in the water and breathe left on your next stroke. It takes practice. It also requires mental quickness, as you don't have as much time to take in what your eyes are seeing. It helps to imagine what you THINK you will see, and then gauge whether reality matches up as your eyes flash out of the water.


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date: July 31, 2020


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.

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