No matter if you’re a first-timer or a seasoned triathlete, there’s no substitution for open-water swim training.

Pool swimming can help build fitness and dial-in technique. However, swimming in open water is essential.

The Importance of Open Water Swimming Training for Triathletes
Most triathlon swim legs occur in an ocean, lake or reservoir. They also include racing alongside other athletes at the same time. That’s why even experienced triathletes still need to do open-water swim training before beginning their race season.

While open-water swimming can be nerve-wracking at first, it just takes some getting used to. Once you become comfortable with it, you’ll see your swim splits get faster and enjoyment on race day will improve.

The Biggest Challenges with Open Water Swimming
When it comes to swimming workouts for triathlons, going to the pool is incredibly important. But there are some elements of a real-world race that are tough to replicate in that environment.

  • Accessibility
    Depending on your geographic location, open bodies of water simply aren’t as accessible or safe to some triathletes. It also requires unique equipment and ideally, others to swim with.

    It’s also often dependent on having the right weather and water conditions.

    That’s why many triathletes save these swims for the weekends when they’ve got a bit more time at their disposal.
  • Temperatures
    Water temperatures are among the most startling differences between pool swimming and open-water swimming training in many places. The summer can mean that the sea temperatures are dangerously high. You can become overheated and dehydrated very quickly. Most of the world suffers from water temperatures being too low at certain times of the year. While a wetsuit can help keep you insulated, cold water is still a stark contrast from the warm waters of the pool. But it’s not just an uncomfortable feeling, cold temperatures also have physical implications like causing your muscles to tense up and your breathing to become more erratic and shallow.
  • Visibility
    Unlike pools, many open water locations have a reduced lack of visibility. This can be because they’re a murky location or even because of the sunlight. This can have psychological implications, especially as for many locations you can’t see the bottom, but it also makes it more challenging to know which direction you’re swimming in.
  • Elements
    While you might get a splash here and there in a pool, but open-water swimming involves contending with the elements. Wind can make it more challenging to swim, currents can take you off course, and choppy waters can mean waves are smashing you in the face from all angles.
  • Breaks
    Taking a breather in open water is a different experience than it is in the pool. Since you won’t be able to stop and hang onto the edge, you’ll need to account for some additional energy expenditure to stay afloat to tread water or to swim back to shore for a break.
  • Crowds
    Typically you won’t have to worry about big crowds during open-water swimming training, but it’s something to keep in mind for race day. Starting your race among a crowd of people and then navigating your way through other swimmers at various speeds makes it harder to be consistent and efficient, in turn depleting your energy reserves.

How to Stay Safe During Open Water Swimming Training
Given the added challenges it presents, it’s essential to take steps to stay safe during open-water swimming.

  • Go With Somebody Or With a Group
    Never swimming alone in open water. Bring a training buddy who can swim alongside you or ask a friend to come out with you in a small boat or on a paddleboard. To have a more realistic feel, join a group like our Friday morning swim. You’ll see be safer in numbers plus get a more realistic feel to race day.
  • Be Visible
    It’s important to make sure you’re visible to other people in the water, whether it’s boaters, jet skiers, or even other swimmers. Have a brightly coloured swim cap and safety buoy. The combination of that, which will generally be bright and fluorescent in colour, will ensure that you’re visible in the water, even from a distance.
  • Check Water Quality
    The quality of the water you plan to swim in will help you avoid things like swimmers’ itch, infections, parasites, bacteria, etc. Municipalities or beach owner-operators regularly test the water quality and post results on designated local websites.
  • Follow the Lifeguard’s Instructions
    As frustrating as it can be, when there are red flags up, do not swim! This is for a reason, simple!
  • Know how far you’ve swam
    Without lane lines, ropes or turns after each length, open-water swimming can be disorienting. It’s important to always keep track of how far you’ve swum and to make sure you’ve got enough energy to get back to the shore.

    Your training watch will provide you with this information.

Essential Gear for Open Water Swimming Training
Open-water swimming requires a lot less equipment than training in the pool, but there are a few key pieces of gear you’ll need and some important considerations to make.

  1. Goggles (Consider a slightly tinted lens to protect your eyes)
  2. Safety Buoy
  3. Swimsuit or Wetsuit (if swimming in water cooler than 24.6°C/76.28°F plus improves your buoyancy)

What Open Water Swim Training Drills Should Triathletes Do
In the same way that you do in the pool, this is the same for open-water swimming as it is a great way to improve and become more comfortable.

  • Breathing
    Finding your breathing rhythm during open water swimming is a bit different than training in a pool, especially during the first 200 metres of your triathlon. When you begin your race, there will inevitably be high adrenaline levels, flailing arms, excessive splashing, and few opportunities to breathe. It can take some time to settle into your swim.
  • Sighting
    During your race, you won’t have lanes or ropes to keep you on track. You’ll be following a set of buoys for the duration of your swim. This is where sighting comes into play.
  • Buoy Turn Drills
    Navigating the buoys means having to make quick pivots while you’re on the move. We don’t want to lose momentum here and we try to keep as much speed as possible.
  • Start Drills
    Unlike a pool, your race will likely begin on a beach, treading water, or jumping off a dock. And rather than jumping into a pool and kicking off from the wall, you’ll have nothing to kick off!

Things to Keep in Mind for Open Water Swimming

  • Focus on Endurance
    Given the challenges and variables that come with open-water swimming, you’ll probably feel like you’re swimming less efficiently. Expect a higher level of exertion than you’d expend in a pool for the same distance in open water. It’s the perfect opportunity to work up to longer continuous intervals without stopping in the open water.
  • Prioritise Mental Preparation
    Completing a triathlon is as much about mental strength as it is about physical fitness, especially during the swim. That’s why training your mind to stay calm in the face of adversity is as important as training your body for fitness.
    For example, you might miss a breath during your race because you get a splash of water on your face. Understanding that it’s a possibility and knowing how to deal with it if it happens. It will help you stay calm and keep moving forward.
  • Try to Relax
    This might feel easier said than done, but the more you can get relaxed in the water, the smoother and more efficient your swimming will be. There’s no secret formula to it. Just like swimming training in a pool, consistency is the key in open water as well. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel.
  • Learn to Draft
    Intuitively, your instincts on race day might tell you to find open spaces where you can swim at your own pace. But you can do a form of drafting in the water by swimming within someone else’s slipstream. This is a great way to let your foot off the gas a little bit and recover for a minute. It will also allow you to take a temporary pause from sighting.

So, all you need to do now is come along every Friday morning!
Due to sunrise, our start time changes throughout the winter, so please get in touch for the latest details!

Get in touch with Matt Dewhurst
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