Open Water Swimming

The hardest part of triathlon for me–and for most people, from what I understand–is the swim. The open water swim. Because swimming in a pool for 800 whole meters isn’t challenging or intimidating enough to those of us who never belonged to a swim team. Let alone those of us who hate putting their faces in water so much that they dislike showering. (I still do shower though!)

Many of you know the story of my first attempt at triathlon, so you know that getting through the next few weeks healthy and ready to confront the water again is very important to me. So, as always, I’ll be closely following the advice of Coach George, who said to me this morning, “Just don’t fall off your bike.”

This weekend we have a training tri, which I’m 100% stoked for. I haven’t raced in almost two months, which is so unlike me, so it will be nice to dust off the cobwebs and see what I can do. After 4 months of triathlon training and 1 month of track workouts, I’m feeling fit again, and I’m starting to lose some weight, which should help with the speed as well.

But I digress! Open water swimming! It’s scary as hell. Ok? If you are a novice swimmer, you need to know that. You need to know that you’re going to get into the water–the brown, murky water, where you won’t be able to see the bottom let alone touch it–and you’re going to feel very uncomfortable. You might even panic. You need to know that’s going to happen and you need to be ready to deal with it. Yes, I’m trying to scare you into preparing. I’ve never regretted over-preparing. (I was terrified of my first marathon, so I trained my ass off and came in 8 minutes below my time goal.)

I’ve been reading (in books and on the DC Tri forum) that water freak outs usually happen very early in the race, which is exactly when I had mine. I don’t regret quitting at all last time, but unless I end up on crutches again between now and then (knock wood), quitting won’t be an option this time.

So how do you prepare to deal with–or avoid altogether–a freak out? Practice, of course. In that spirit, Katie and I took a trip out to Sandy Point State Park on Saturday to get some in. This is my third open water swim this season, and every time it feels better.

We got out there on Saturday and suited up. (We had several people come up to chat with us because we had wetsuits on. It’s a little embarrassing. Yes, I know I’m wearing your uniform, but I know nothing of your people. Yet.)

It’s a good idea to wear a brightly colored swim cap so that you can easily be seen in the murky water. That means no dark purple, blue, or black. Katie’s swim cap was bright enough to let me sight off of her the entire time, which I found to be much easier than sighting objects on shore.

When you first get in, the water will probably be cold, and even if you don’t have weird hang ups, you might not want to put your face right in it. The best tip I’ve ever gotten for calming myself down is to stand a minute and just dip your face in. Practice breathing in that position, blowing out into the water, then turning your head to take a breath, all while standing still. It will get you used to the cold and the dark while you’re still in control.

Katie demonstrates dipping her face in the water to get used to it.

Once we’d acclimated to the cold and the murky water, Katie and I started out with some short, out-and-back swims. I was too busy taking silly pictures to take any useful ones, but we were using the bridge to sight. We’d swim out a little bit before turning back and heading to shore, practicing sighting both ways.

Katie swims back toward shore.

Then we mapped out a course that was about 100 yards long. We were swimming between lifeguard chairs. One way was with the current and took about 2 and a half minutes. The way back was against, and took me well over 4 minutes each time. In addition, when we were swimming back, we were really getting pummeled by the waves. Luckily, that won’t be an issue for my first tri, but it’s still good to practice that in. I found that I could pretty easily feel the water moving around me, so I didn’t get socked in the face with too many waves. But I did get socked in the face a few times. Thanks to my runner’s lungs, I just put my head back down, spit the water out, and just went back to breathing every third stroke as usual. If you don’t have that kind of lung capacity, don’t panic. Just spit out the water while trying to keep your stroke as intact as possible. And if it keeps happening, you can switch to breathing on one side–which is why it’s a good idea to know how to breath on both sides. What if you’re getting pummeled on that one side?

Also, in terms of sighting. I was told to pick my head up to sight and breath in, then turn it and lay it back down into the water to return to your normal stroke. But I actually do the opposite. It feels a lot easier and more natural to me to turn my head and breath first and then to look up as I’m putting it back into the water and finishing my stroke. Do what works for you.

Katie and I swam our little course a few times, and each time I got more comfortable with it and took fewer breaks.

Breaks for me in my wetsuit have come to mean just dog-paddling a bit with my head up to survey and catch my breath before diving back in. Breaks for you should be anything you’re comfortable with, from dog-paddling to breast-stroking to back-stroking to floating on your back. I find that breast-stroking tires me out too quickly, so I try to hold my front crawl with my head up. It takes more energy than front crawling with my head down, but it helps lessen the anxiety, so I think it evens out.

We did that for about 40 minutes (with lots of rest) before we climbed out of the water and spent the rest of the day relaxing on shore. If you’re training for a tri, you really need to get out to open water somewhere and try swimming for some distance. I really can’t describe how much it’s helping me prepare. I’ll be out there at least once more before the race, and, while I’ll probably never be completely ok with sticking my face in the Potomac (I mean, it’s the Potomac!),  I’ll be as close to that point as possible come June 20.

Any experienced open water swimmers want to throw in some more tips? To my fellow tri newbies–what are your biggest concerns about the race?

Oh yeah, and wear sunscreen.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for this post! I am hoping to finally do my ow swim this weekend – your post just reinforces how necessary it is to do before the race. I don’t have a wetsuit – do you think it’s warm enough to do with a swimsuit there?


  2. […] I signed up for my first open water swim at Sandy Point this Sunday. Excited and nervous that one. Liz just did an awesome post about open water swimming you should read if you are training for a triathlon or want to do an open […]


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