June 2, 2022
Nail Your Next Open Water Swim
How to train to swim your best in open water – perfect your stroke, overcome your fears, and be faster out of the water at your next race.
Race season has officially begun in the northern hemisphere. As wetsuits are inspected for tears and tri suits dug out of bottom drawers, we hear familiar echoes of “where the actual f*@k is my race belt?” As a longtime coach, athlete, and mentor, I am here to give you four weeks of practical training and race information.
If open water swimming makes you at least a little uncomfortable, you can rest assured that you are not alone. As the race season approaches, most of my athlete calls include some form of open water swim (OWS) conversation. As races approach, newbies and veterans alike have plenty of questions about technique and training tips, as well as how to process and manage fear, panic, aversions, or consuming negative thoughts while out in the lake or ocean.
On top of nervous triathlete wannabees to long time swimmers’ minds: the murkiness of the water, the chance of drowning, how gross the weeds are (especially when they tangle your hands and feet), getting swam over or punched in the face by other swimmers, how to swim on course, and even the chance of seeing fish, snakes and sharks. Like all things in life, it is true that there are risks in open water swimming. But you can still “tri” by working on technique, training your body, and setting yourself up for success mentally, in your daily training.
Training and Technique Tips for Open Water Swimmers
Try these practical tips to maximize your open water swim training in order to crush your next race.
Practice and/or refresh your OWS skills in the pool before heading into open water. Include sighting, hand entry, and stroke rate drills in your pool training sessions. Add in some anaerobic starts (like hard efforts for 15 yards before settling in) in order to mimic the beginning of a race. These practices can help both veterans and beginners to build confidence.
Before swimming, take the time you need to get comfortable in open water. Beginners and/or veterans who are uncomfortable will benefit from slowing down and starting with the basics. Enter the water slowly and put your face in when ready. If learning or prone to panicking, start with blowing bubbles and staying where you can still touch until you are ready to venture further out. See below for some more mental tips to overcome open water fears.
Warm-up in training and when racing. After getting comfortable being in the water, start with some very easy strokes. The warm-up does not only prepare you for the aerobic and anaerobic demands of the workout or event, but it is also a great time to check in with your basic swim form and technique. If there is no opportunity to warm up at a race site then do a dryland warm up followed by using the first 50 meters of the race to settle in.
Utilize strong open water form and technique. Your OWS form may need to differ from your pool form. Be sure to rotate properly in saltwater and/or your wetsuit, as the added buoyancy in your lower body can alter your rotation. Fully finish your catch and pull while also increasing your stroke rate. Battling waves and navigating other swimmers is more manageable when you glide less, hold a high tempo, and create timed rhythmic strokes. Your hand entry should also be more assertive than in the pool to punch through the chop.
Get into a sighting rhythm through regular practice. Elite and beginner swimmers alike may be tempted to forgo the disruption of sighting in order to freely swim a smooth stroke when training in a wide open lake with no timer or the need to navigate other swimmers. But as it is said, practice makes (closer to) perfect. You will likely only have buoys to sight in races, so in training, practice sighting straight forward on a landmark every 6-10 strokes. More practice will make sighting a more regular, less disruptive part of your swim stroke.
Vary the purpose of your open water swim sessions. Schedule some sessions to “swim along,” using the time to get comfortable and build endurance. Other workouts can be used to build speed in the water with some structured interval work. For interval training, you can use a GPS tracker (when possible) to measure distance in open water and then use these measurements to do intervals (but be aware – these are not always super accurate). You also can just choose landmarks to swim hard to or count strokes – try 50 hard freestyle strokes followed by 50 to 100 easy and repeat.
Be sure that your wetsuit fits properly. Wetsuits are designed to add warmth and buoyancy, ideally without too much constriction of movement in your shoulders. If you feel that your wetsuit negatively impacts your stroke, then consider buying a new one or trying a sleeveless suit. Find a suit that is fitted, but does not constrict too tightly around your neck. When swimmers feel that the wetsuit is “choking” them, it can easily cause and increase panic. Although it is not recommended by manufacturers, many swimmers will cut the neck of their suit to open it up if a new one is not in the budget.
Find a swim training buddy or squad. Join a group and/or work with a coach when you can – for technique tips, and to challenge your effort. A squad can also answer questions and simulate race day experiences.
Getting comfortable, perfecting technique, and training harder, all help build confidence in open water swimming. Addressing your fears and training your mind can help take you to the next level.
Mental Training Tips for Reaching Your Open Water Swim Potential
Many women still experience rational and irrational fears that can hold them back from starting, or even from reaching their full potential in open water swimming. Whether you are afraid to start or have “panic swum” 100 triathlons, you still can be a strong open water swimmer. Sometimes you just have to start with believing.
Identify as an open water swimmer. Whether you are just getting started, are nearly a pro, or panic every time you get in the water, stay open and curious about your identity as an open water swimmer. Acknowledge your fears and consider the roots of your anxiety before entering the water. Believe that you belong in the water, and practice positive self-talk and visualization, whether it is about your actual effort, or other open water fears. If negative self-talk causes panic while swimming, take some time to float on your back or breaststroke, in order to breathe while utilizing your positive self-talk tools that you’ve practiced previously on dry land.
Start each swim with a “water ritual.” This advice may be surprising to some readers, but I have my own personal practice that I do every time I swim in open water, even after 15+ years in the sport. While standing waist deep in the water I do some deep breathing to calmly “accept” the water. I thank the water for the opportunity to swim and acknowledge that I trust the water and my capabilities. Find what works well for you to have your best chance at avoiding wasting any energy fighting the water.
Set yourself up for emotional (and hormonal) success. If you still have a monthly menstrual cycle, track your moods to know when you typically have the highest amount of mojo in the month and hit the open water then. If peri or post menopausal, be aware of how your changing hormones can affect your mood and have grace for yourself when needed. Listen and trust your body!
Don’t swim alone. I mentioned how a buddy, squad, and/or coach can positively impact training, but I believe they can be even more important for physical and mental support. Be honest with your apprehensiveness, as it is likely they can have their own and/or offer some words of encouragement. And, for safety, I always recommend swimming with others and with on top of the water support (like a friend in a kayak or SUP).
Open water swimming can be a very enjoyable, or at least a more than tolerable, part of training. Practice often to be able to show up and reach your fullest potential on race day.
Miranda Bush is the Head Coach and Educator at Feisty Triathlon. She is USA Triathlon and Training Peaks certified, as well as a certified Health Coach. She is also a graduate of Dr. Stacy Sim’s Women Are Not Small Men and Menopause for Athletes courses. As a longtime coach specializing in training women, her passion lies in using lessons from training and racing to teach athletes to evolve physically, mentally, and emotionally through sport. Miranda is also a longtime athlete and multiple Ironman and 70.3 distance podium finisher, maintaining a consistent racing career while working and raising her kids. She resides in Wisconsin with her three teenagers and husband who all love to race triathlon.