For many first-time triathletes, an open water swim is the most daunting part of the race. Lots of swimmers in close quarters with no lane lines to guide them can sound overwhelming. But with the right preparation, your swim can be smooth sailing!
Practice, Practice, Practice!
If you've never experienced swimming in the open water, it's a good idea to get out and practice it before your race. That way you can get familiar with the unique challenges of swimming in open water so you're prepared for them on race day.
Attend some open water swim practices in your area. If you're not lucky enough to have these events nearby, get a buddy or a group of friends together to practice in some open water. Check your local laws to be sure that swimming is allowed where you plan to practice before you venture out.
The key to being successful in open water is staying calm. If you don't take to swimming like a fish takes to water, take some time to get used to it. Wade out until you're waist-deep and then dip under to get wet and acclimate to the temperature. Focus on breathing from your diaphragm while putting your face in the water and blowing bubbles gently. Try humming to keep the water out of your nose. When you're comfortable, move on to deeper water while moving your hands back and forth and continuing to breathe.
When you're comfortable, swim back and forth parallel to the water's edge so you know you can touch the bottom if needed. Some people find that counting their strokes or singing a song in their head helps them stay calm and focused. As you get more comfortable and confident in your ability, head into deeper water and swim a loop back into shore.
In open water, you must use landmarks and buoys to guide you through your swim. Race courses come in many different shapes and it can be easy to wander off course. Blindly following the person in front of you isn't always a great idea because they may be swimming off course too!
It's better to find your way by "sighting." Lift your head slightly at the start of your stroke and look forward briefly to spot a buoy or stationary landmark before turning your head to the side and completing your breath. Be careful not to lift your head completely out of the water as this will cause your hips and legs to sink, slowing you down.
With enough practice, sighting can be an effortless part of swimming in open water. Once you get the hang of it, try sighting every 4 to 6 strokes. If you get disoriented, stop and tread water while you regain your bearings.
It's a good idea to practice your sighting technique in the pool, but you might not want to wear clear pool goggles in the open water. Goggles with a metallic, sunglasses-style coating can be ideal for swimming in open water because they cut down on glare. If your triathlon starts near dawn, chances are you'll be swimming toward the rising sun at some point along the course! When the conditions are cloudy, goggles with a high-contrast lens will be better.
Swimming pools are often kept in the upper 70's to low 80's Fahrenheit, but open water is often cooler. Regardless of the temperature of the open water, a wetsuit is always recommended because triathlon wetsuits do a lot more than keep you warm. They add buoyancy, too, so you float much easier.
If the water's really chilly, consider getting a thermal neoprene cap and even some neoprene booties. Thermal caps are made from the same neoprene as a triathlon wetsuit and cover your head and ears for added insulation. You can even wear it under your event cap on race day.
Some people also find that wearing moldable swimming earplugs helps them stay warm by keeping the cold water out of their ears. Neoprene booties will help your feet stay warm and give them some protection when you're on shore.
No matter what type of swimmer you are, wearing a triathlon wetsuit will always make you faster in the water. And if you're not a confident swimmer, a wetsuit can make you feel safer, too. Many suits are designed with extra buoyancy in the hips and legs, a big help for triathletes from a running or cycling background.
The additional lift of the wetsuit floats you higher on the water and makes it easier to maintain proper form. Additionally, triathlon wetsuits are extremely flexible so they're easy to swim in and they even have a special slick outer coating that makes them slide through the water faster than bare skin.
There are two common styles of triathlon wetsuits: full-sleeve and sleeveless. A full-sleeve wetsuit will be a little warmer, more buoyant and faster in the water because it covers more of the body. Wetsuits fit very snugly and some people don't like the feeling on their shoulders and chest. A sleeveless wetsuit can feel less restrictive while still providing warmth and buoyancy. They are also nice for swimming in warmer water.
Triathlon wetsuits can be a big investment so you may be tempted to find an inexpensive "shorty" or other wetsuit designed for jet-skiing, scuba or other sports. While these types of suits will provide some insulation, they're not meant for swimming. They commonly have lycra on the exterior for abrasion resistance and are not cut for the swimming position.
Triathlon wetsuits are specifically made for use in the swimming position – arms over your head, head forward and hips high on the water. They are more flexible and far more comfortable for swimming than wetsuits for other sports.
You've put in the yardage at the pool, you've had a few practice open water sessions and now you're ready to race! Look around – it's a good bet that the person to either side of you is just as nervous about the swim as you are! Give yourself plenty of time to get in a good warm-up to work out the nerves before going to the start line. Be sure to scan the race course, too, and take note of the objects you'll be using for sighting.
Instead of lining up at the front and center, and taking off as soon as the gun sounds, consider lining up at the back or to the side of your start wave. When the starting gun goes off, wait a few seconds for the other swimmers to start before you take off. This way you can swim in your own space, focusing on breathing and staying calm.
If you get tired, there are ways you can rest in an open water swim. You can turn over onto your back and float or tread water with your head up if you need to take a breather. While the crawl stroke is generally faster, you can swim whatever stroke you are most comfortable with. And in USA Triathlon-sanctioned events, you are allowed to hang on to the lifeguard's boats and rest if needed, as long as you do not push off from them (be sure to read over the rules of your event before race day!). Remember that it's your event and swim it at your pace!
When you're nearing the swim exit, start kicking harder to get the blood circulating in your legs in preparation for the run up to the transition area. If you're exiting onto a beach, wait to stand up until your hands are scraping the ground as you swim. Because it's much easier to swim across the top of the water than to wade through it. And as you run up the beach to the transition, congratulate yourself - you're 1/3 of the way to finishing that triathlon!