Before I was a triathlete, I was a runner and a cyclist. As you may suspect, the reason why I had yet to become a triathlete at that point was because I did not know how to swim. It is for this reason that when my friends who are runners, cyclists or both, tell me they’d love to compete in a triathlon but can’t because they don’t know how to swim, I can very much understand where they are coming from. When they tell me that they’re mainly scared because swimming is hard, that the mass starts of the open water swim portion of the triathlon looks intimidating or even kind of scary, this too I definitely understand because I once felt exactly the same.

For most new swimmers, your journey to becoming a swimmer will begin in the pool because it’s a controlled environment and the easiest to access. In fact for most swimmers experienced or not, you will spend the majority of your time training for your swims in a pool. Pools are great for learning how to swim and logging those much needed training miles, but as suspected it’s not the same as swimming in the open water. Why? Simply put: Unless you’re close to the shore, in the open water you can’t stop, put your feet on the ground and stand up, nor is there a black line to stare at; you definitely have to deal with more people in a smaller amount of surrounding space, and unless you’re in a tropical area, you can’t see your hand in front of you, let alone much of anything else through the water.

I remember right before my first triathlon someone telling me that I would most certainly freak out during the swim, and that it wasn’t even something I could debate. This person said this not because it was me, but because everyone who hasn’t swam in the open water and never participated in a triathlon freaks out on their open water swim. And even though I trusted the person who told me this and I was pretty nervous the day of the race, I still was not completely sold that I would freak out. But, I did.  Despite all the hours I had logged in the pool, 30 seconds into my first open water swim I had already flipped over onto my back and was gasping for air, wondering how the hell I was going to swim ALL 400 yards in a big scary lake!  I was certain everyone anywhere near me and even those on the shore were staring and laughing at me. Eleven LONG minutes later I re-emerged. (Yes, it will took me 11 whole minutes to swim 400 yards! That’s how much I panicked!)

Truth be told as scary as the first open water swim (OWS) was, so was the second OWS. It wasn’t as scary but it was still scary nonetheless. And, so was the third OWS. But sometime around the fourth or fifth time in the open water, it just didn’t seem as scary any more. I started to just swim without giving it much thought, just as I did in the pool. I realized that just like it was scary to learn to swim as an adult, swimming in a different environment was no different and the only thing I could do was do what I always have done with everything else I wanted to do good at: practice, practice, practice. Oh yeah, and sucking it up, forcing myself to do something that scares me by getting my butt in the OW every chance I got also helped. 🙂

To make your first OWS a little less scary, here are some things to consider:

No matter how much you prepare, you will freak out during your first OWS

Yes you will. And, it’s natural. But try and remember that the more you force yourself to swim in the open water, the more routine it will feel. The first time I swam in a lake I freaked out. The first time I swam in the ocean I did not freak out but I wanted to. The only reason I didn’t was because I had already swam in open water and the only difference was that this body of water was salty and MUCH LARGER. I just kept telling myself I was in a lake… a very, very salty lake, and before I knew it, I was running on shore. Many local tri clubs host practice OWS throughout the hotter months of the year – find them and do as many as you can. The more experience you have, the more confidently you’ll swim in the open water.

Be calm!

Easier said than done, because when you’re surrounded by a swarm of swimmers you’ll feel like you’re in the world’s worst pool party. All those flailing limbs and tangled body parts can seem very daunting, but it doesn’t mean it actually is. Block everything else out and focus on what you are doing. In almost every race I have been in, the chaos of the swim starts to disband within the first couple of minutes. Stay focused, chase feet and breathe. You will find your way around the swarm and eventually find your groove.

Inhale AND Exhale, Inhale AND Exhale

Just as you do in the pool, focus on controlled breathing. With all the excitement and commotion at the start of the swim, our instinct is to panic and take in large, heaping gasps of air. This can cause hyperventilation which isn’t fun out of the water, let alone in the water, where you can’t very well sit down and breathe into a bag to calm yourself down. So, again just as you do in the pool, focus on breathing. Count strokes and breathe. 1, 2, 3,4… breathe, 1, 2, 3,4… breathe… rinse, wash and repeat.  Doing this will help you keep calm, keep your heart rate down and most importantly, it will take your mind off the fact that you’re in the open water, likely squashing any panic before it can even set in.

Sight

Let’s face it – swimming in a pool is easier because you can see. Even if you’re circle swimming with a team it’s easy to see swimmers in front and behind you as you swim lap after lap and can assess your approximate separation of  distance between the two. In the open water, this is not the case. Even though most race organizers  strive to make the swim course as straight a line as possible, with minimal turns, there is no black stripe or lane markers in the open water. This makes it pretty easy to get off course. If you don’t “sight” or look up to see what is ahead and around you every few meters, you will likely find yourself off course at some point. This will cost you time and effort, both of which can affect your race performance negatively.

Study the course

Before you arrive on race day, you should know the course. Look it up online and study it. Take note of how many buoys you’ll be passing and what color the turn buoys are (the main buoys are often red or orange and the turn buoy is yellow). The more you know, the more you’ll be able to asses your next maneuver, and the less likely you are to go off course.

You are not alone

And I’m not talking about the other swimmers. Fish, plants, insects and other THINGS live in water. Thinking about that is sending you into panic mode right now, isn’t it? I bet you’re freaking out right now! Relax. You’ll probably never come in contact with any of these things because you’ll be too focused on all of the  flailing triathlete bodies around you (actually all of this commotion does a good job in scaring off most creatures). Even if you do come into contact with a fish (and I have), by the time you realize it, it’ll be long gone. Just remember: They’d rather hide from you than try and fight you.

Get your gear right

What goggles, wet suit and tri-suit/kit should you wear on race day? You need to figure all of this out prior to your race. You need to buy these things, try them on and workout in them. The absolute last thing you want to deal with on race day is gear malfunctioning or proving itself to be a bad fit. Imagine running a marathon in shoes too tight or loose or going on a century ride on an ill fitted bike with padded shorts that don’t work for you – it’d be exactly like this. Don’t gamble; take the time to test your gear and get it right before you tow the line.

Exit as well as you enter

How you exit the water is just as important as how you enter. When you are approaching the end of the swim, your sighting should also include focusing on the exit point. Swim towards it with purpose and DO NOT stop until you can not physically swim anymore. This is a huge mistake I see many people make ALL the time – they stop short, and start running in the water when it’s still swimmable. Water creates a lot of resistance, which makes running in it tough. For this reason you want to swim until the water is so shallow, your fingers are basically touching the bottom of the ground. When you reach this point, push yourself up with both arms, quickly stand up and hustle!  Give yourself a second to adjust to the change from horizontal to vertical (personally I feel a little dizzy when I first come out of the water) and exit the water running.

I hope these handy tips help! While the open water is daunting at first, if you’re like me you’ll get stronger every time you swim in the open water, and eventually you’ll begin to love and prefer it.

More: 5 Secrets of the Triathlon Swim

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