Open Water Swimming Techniques

For all you triathletes and open water swimmers, these tips are for you.  As you all know, swimming in the open water can be nothing like those pretty little laps in the pool.  Running into ice cold murky water with 2 foot swells and chop, with 100 other people intent on drowning you is not most people's idea of a relaxing swim. Many of the best swimmers sometimes get a rude awakening during their first open water event.  And, many of those weak swimmers vow never to race again in the open water.  Hopefully, however, our tips can help you feel more comfortable in these races.  As with all skills, the keys are to be prepared and practice!  We've highlighted a few of our favorite tips below.   So pay attention and practice! 

Marking.  A great  tactic for all swimmers, is to use fixed on-land or on-sea landmarks to help guide you through the race.  This is done pre-race, but needs to actually be used while swimming.  

Head up.  This takes practice.  You absolutely should develop some skill at this.  You need to be able to lift your eyes up out of the water and catch sight of what is around you without disrupting your stroke.  This is vital for various reasons, some of which include being able to sight landmarks, the course markings, the people around you.  Some do it on an interval basis--like every four full stroke cycles, others do it every once in a while, some do it every stroke cycle, and other vary the frequency.  The amount you do it is up to you.  If you get good at it, we recommend every stroke during the beginning of the race and during any point where sight is vital, and an interval approach when 'in the clear'.  There is little question that it takes more energy to look up frequently.  So conservation is good when sight is less important.

We recommend two easy practice methods--water polo stroke and a 'breathing look up'.  Water polo stroke is simply freestyle with your head up out of the water looking straight in front of you.  Try to keep your head level and straight as you go.  If your head is high enough, you won't need to turn it to breath.  This will get your body and muscles trained to swim with the head lifted.

The 'breathing look up' is a method where you look up, then turn your head to the side to breath normally, while continuing your normal stroke.  This is the method we prefer for actual races, because it requires the least amount of energy and disrupts the stroke the least.  As a practice method, we like to mix it in with normal sets.  An example would be to do a normal workout but on each odd lap we would do the 'breathing look up'.  

To perform this technique you lift your head up straight up out of the water to where you can see the side of the pool in front of you (or where you can see the beach in front of you).  You start the lift when your arm is extended out straight in front of you and your are getting the most lift from that hand--or, just before you would normally take a breath.  Many like to exhale as they lift their head forward (this prevents swallowing water and allows for less stroke disruption as you only need to inhale after your head turns).  After you make clear sight contact with the target ahead of you, you drop your head and simultaneously turn it toward your breathing side where you inhale as normal and continue the stroke as normal.  As expected, this takes practice to get the timing just right so that it hardly take any extra energy to do it.  It is well worth it though!

Body Contact.  One thing that freaks out virtually everyone that first does an open water event is how aggressive everyone around them seems to be.  A lot of bumping, kicking, groping, and all round body contact will occur at the beginning and possibly throughout each race.  This is very hard for anyone who has never experienced this kind of swimming before.  Panic, heart, and breathing levels can all skyrocket under these conditions if one is not prepared. 

In order to reduce these adverse effects, you must practice swimming in a group of thugs before you race.  Get some friends or enemies to get in the water with you and swim right on top of you at a rapid pace.  As you  get thrashed, try to envision this occurring in a lake or the ocean, with little to no visibility and possibly some chop.  Do this a few times to get a feel for it.  Try to develop some techniques that will assist you in these circumstances.  Most of all, be prepared for situation.  Our swimmers recommend using the head up techniques in those situations to help prevent face kicks and to help navigate the morass. 

Simulate.  Related to the above tip, we recommend practicing as much as possible under simulated conditions.  This means, practice in the ocean if that is where your event is.  It also means swim in 60 degree water if that is the probable temperature of where your event is being held.  It means running for 30 seconds at sprint pace before the swim and after the swim, if that is the structure of the race.  Do whatever it takes to prepare you for the worst-case conditions of your race.

Safety.  Never swim alone.  Try to swim where trained lifeguards are present.  Avoid man-eating fish.