The Open Water – The Struggles

This is going to be a little different from my usual race report blogs. Since it’s now sort of spring (although the high this Saturday is scheduled to be 44°F with rain, you know, my FAVORITE forecast this year), I thought I would put up my advice on the dreaded open water swim (OWS for short).

A lot of people out there who do triathlon or are thinking about doing triathlon seemed mostly stopped by one thing: OWS. What I don’t understand is where this fear is coming from. I have heard many stories of those struggling with phantom sharks in a small community pond, to suffocating wetsuits (understandable, more to come on that), to the sheer panic of nothing being under you, the mystery of what is down there…you could drown. But will you? Probably not. Statics say no, no matter how much you may fear it.

A little bit about my experience. I grew up in rural Virginia on the east side of the blue ridge mountains, we had some lakes, and we would visit the Atlantic Ocean once every 2 to 3 years, usually down in the Outer Banks (and how I do so love this place). Perhaps it was because I grew up getting in and out of the water. It’s not like bad things did not happen to me. I got the usual; stung by jellyfish, wrapped up in seaweed, hit by fish (and could see little minnows EVERYWHERE), jumped off of boats into 300′ deep water, felt all the little coquina clams burying when the tide would rise and fall, been in water below 55°F and above 83°F, and caught in a rip tide…

oh yeah that…

Back when I was about 10 years old, I was at the beach with my family and was playing in about thigh high (mind you I was like 10, so I wasn’t tall) water in the open ocean. I used to body surf (or thought I was anyway) with the incoming waves. I was riding along as the wave crashed over me, and I was caught. The rip current dragged me under and I could not get out. Yes I could swim, but a rip current is a relatively strong, narrow current flowing outward from the beach through the surf zone that is hard to get out of. Typically you can swim parallel to the shore and get out but I am not sure this is true. Regardless, I was too young to have this knowledge. I kind of accepted that I was going to die until an arm grabbed me and I surfaced. My aunt had saved me. I didn’t go into the ocean again that year.

Rip currents (and I guess sharks) are the most dangerous things in the open ocean that can kill you. Now that I have probably deterred you from ever swimming in the ocean, let’s talk more about OWS. I just wanted to be clear that I am not without my experiences in the water. I have done both Xterra rough water swimming in Hawaii and a half ironman OWS in the Pacific Ocean in Mexico. I have done several triathlons in several different lakes, and I have to say, I much prefer the clean nature of the ocean and its buoyancy over a murky lake.

First, you have to address WHY are you scared of open water? Let’s forgo the fact you have to coordinate swimming in it for a moment. Can you get in the water and play around? What is stopping you? Take a second and just think. You won’t be going in alone (and nor should you do ANY open water swimming without someone present!), the water is perfectly safe, unless you are going to try and do this during a thunderstorm, but you shouldn’t be racing or training in those conditions!! The water is probably calm, and somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees, pretty mild. If on the cooler side, you probably have a wetsuit on (more about this later I promise). You won’t freeze and you won’t overheat. Picture yourself just floating on the surface of the water.

Practice. Everything comes with time and calming any fears will take time and practice. Why not take some time, don’t swim, and learn to relax in the water. Take an hour of your time and just experience what being in the water is like. Get in, splash around, sit with you feet dangling. As a kid, I would just willingly trust the lake waters I got in, everyone else did, it must be ok, right? Mentally that’s easier said than done for a lot. Do a picnic by the lake, enjoy what nature has offered you. Being around open water should not be stressful, it should be serene. I think a lot of the mental side of getting in has to do with peoples’ experiences in open water being purely in a race environment. Race situations will always be stressful. So if your only experience in open water is during races or group swims, you might not be able to associate the water with calming thoughts. Take your practice outside of this and experience the water in a different light.

Ok, so we’ve gotten acquainted with the water, stay with me here, now we need to swim. If you have a fear of not reaching the bottom, and you are able, let’s try swimming casually along the shoreline where your feet can reach the bottom at all times. Doesn’t matter how long or short the swims are, this is about control. You are in control. This is no different than a pool, it’s still water, might be a little cooler or warmer, but it’s not acid, it’s not peanut butter flavored jello or some nonsense, just water. Usually in lakes, and most oceans or bays, you won’t be able to see very far down below you. Just because there is no lane line for you to follow doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your swimming form to keep your neck strained upward. More about sighting later! Swim just like you would in the pool, and now there are no walls to slow you down!

Find a rhythm right away. Like running or biking, starting out at a slow pace will always reward you. I find that a lot of people are short of breath when they first enter the water to swim because their pace is too high and then they panic (although some panic before that happens just by nerves or the feeling of the water). Enter the water like you would if you were just going to play in the water, feel it out. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, let it fill with the water, let it equilibriate and take normal breaths, keeping it even and consistent. Float around if you are able. I typically like to float around cause I dislike touching the bottom of the lake.

But the water is cold, and it constricts my airways! Being cold is temporary. Prevent yourself from taking shallow short breaths. Some people find it useful to dunk the head into the water, as putting your face into the cooler water will help your body realize it’s ok! (Rather than taking off swimming making that first stroke when your face touches the water.) Find an inner peace with the swim. Feel the water surrounding you and how it flows around your body. Sounds corny, but hey. I like to do some bobbing and water treading before starting the actual swim, this will warm you, your hands and feet, and get your heart ready to work out for the swim, versus spiking it by just taking off.

This is all practice, this is not a race situation, but I have used these things in races when I can. Now, wetsuits. You probably have a love hate relationship with the darn thing. It’s tight, probably too much around the neck, the chest next, and uncomfortable. Yes if the suit is tight, it’s probably fitted correctly as the suit expands in the water and if the suit were too loose, you’d be swimming around with extra water weight in your suit…that’s not really efficient! All wetsuits are tight. All wetsuits will be uncomfortable around the neck, it’s literally the number one complaint I read about. There’s nothing you can do about it, so we’re going to move on. The benefits of a wetsuit far outweight the cons. Wetsuits provide so much buoyancy. You’d be hard pressed to try and drown in one…they will float you. And I assure you most OWSs are wetsuit legal. They begin being illegal at around 76°F and absolutely not past 82°F due to overheating being a factor. Luckily we have these things called cold fronts that push rain around and cool lakes and things called nights where the sun isn’t out to warm the waters in excess, so many lakes stay below these non-wetsuit conditions. Wearing your wetsuit around the house probably won’t do much, and a wetsuit will stretch a little over time with use. When I wear a wetsuit out in a lake before I swim, I get in and try to fill the wetsuit with water from opening the neck collar and letting it all in, then moving it around into the arms and legs. I always feel like I’m filling a limp balloon when I do this! I usually find this loosens the neck. But then people complain about the tightness in the chest. The chest should not feel excessively tight in the water. Remember, in swimming you are just taking breaths in rhythm and not like in running, you should not feel like you are out of breath, if you do, slow down! Check your form. Are you lifting your arms enough to allow your lungs to fill with the air you are trying to get? A sleeved wetsuit you are fighting against the neoprene to get your arms around! There’s resistance where there wouldn’t be normally. This takes, you guessed it, practice. Just be aware! A lot of people opt for the sleeveless because of this rotation and lack of movement you get in the sleeved version. I prefer the sleeved one because I tend to be cold and like being warm.

You’ve swum before. Try not to set expectations for time or distance. Instead opt for time in the water. You probably won’t be going in a straight line, and lakes don’t generally provide lines you just follow, they are usually round bodies of water! Sighting. Don’ts: don’t sight every stroke, you will be lifting your head too much causing strain on yourself and your form; don’t sight every 10+ strokes, you might get off course or move too far left or right. Do: sight every 3-7 strokes. 5 is generally the magic number and you don’t have to lift your entire head, just a quick glance and you’re set. DON’T FOLLOW PEOPLE IN A RACE, DON’T TRUST THEM!

And there’s the race. Most panic happens here. Why? Because it’s stressful being around stressful things and people! In triathlon, you are kicked, punched, dunked, swam over, ect. There is good news my friend, no wildlife on this planet is going to want to go near a swarm of struggling humans all going in the same direction!! I use this mentality A LOT, as I very much dislike marine life (e.g. fishies). So we’ve taken care of water critters. They’re gone. They took vacation for the day. You are probably not going to be in the front of the pack. This is also good! Why? Because they will clear out the rest of “water life” there is, the algae and “seaweed”, sweet!! I very much appreciate this as getting a little weed attached to your hand feel creepy in the “I walked into a spiderweb I didn’t see” feeling. Can you see the bottom of the water? Nope. That’s ok, you’ll never really know you’re only 20 feet above the bottom, and that’s not very far. 20 feet looks the same as 5 feet and that looks the same as 500 feet. Assume it’s 5-20 feet. See that kayaker volunteer over there? Yeah he got your back son. He’s there to help you out should you need it, or not. Usually these bros (chicks) are shouting at swimmer saying how they’re off course and usually not needed because someone is in trouble in the water.

The hardest part is listening to your swim wave. There will be all sort of nervous chatter. Just know what YOU need to do and execute it. Calm someone else down, it may help you remember what you need to be at peace and help them too. Everyone there is in the same water as you, there isn’t a single issue. Everyone is there to race with you. No one is TRYING to punch or hit you, it’s by accident. I can’t count the number of times a swimmer has stopped to tell me they’re sorry. Just keep swimming, Dory. If you are nervous about that, position yourself for success. What I mean by that is look out at the course, yes you have to swim that, but feel out where you want your line to be. This could be an outer edge to avoid people. If you gain more confidence along the way, then just cut inside, no big deal! Remember when I said to swim your pace? DO IT. Slow and ease into it. Keep your heart rate in check. You’ve probably done this in a pool where you started out too fast and made it 50 yards and thought you were out of shape…same thing. Same thing happens in running, would you start your run at a 7 minute per mile pace when your sweet spot is 10 minutes per mile? NO. Don’t do it. Trust me.

Find your swim. Find your lane in the water. This is your race, or your practice time for YOU. Do what YOU need. I hope this was useful in how to handle conquering the OWS. For the more adventurous, read on for Ocean OWS.

If you made it here, you might be adventurous. I’ve done a few OWS in the ocean and I find the different to approach but fun. First off, the water is different from the lake or pool, it’s more buoyant because it’s salty. This is good and bad! Good because you can float, bad because you really shouldn’t drink it haha. Or who knows, maybe you are getting your sodium in before the bike? I don’t judge. A swim with waves can be intimidating however. I think I have a few pictures from my Xterra race up on my race report, head over to this link to see the waves! (Xterra World Championships)

Oceans have currents. This is unlike your other swims. The current can be used to your advantage if you are with the current, and disadvantageous if you are against it (this can also be applied to OWS in rivers). You typically have no control over this. Learn that it is there.

Oceans have rip tides. The most dangerous part. But typically triathlons are not held where there are high risks of these. Xterra was different in that it was supposed to be difficult. You can google what these look like, but unlikely you will be able to see them before you’re in one while swimming. Riptides: swim WITH it until you are out. If you feel a strong pull, you are probably in one and just need to relax and swim with it, and usually swimming towards shore will pull you worse (don’t do that).

Waves! This is the fun part, but can also be challenging. Let’s talk about shoreline waves. You’re on the beach, and you need to get in. Waves can provide a lot of resistance and slow you down in a race, or just be overall annoying in practice. What do? Dolphin dive! You can find useful visual on YouTube (Global Tri channel I think it is). Basically you wait for a wave to just about to break, this requires a bit of visual timing, and then dive beneath where the wave will break towards the ocean floor and curve your back upward to the surface where you will come out the other side of the crashed wave. If you want to gain more speed on this, aim to grab the ocean floor to push yourself back up to the surface faster! Ok, you might have to do this a few times to get past the breakers, but once you do, it’s almost like any other open water situation, the water is usually calm, but you can feel there are mini waves that will bob you up and down. I usually like to go with this rhythm and it can be super relaxing like you are being swayed by the wind in a hammock on the beach. Past the breakers is where the current is usually found. This will bless or curse you. But again, everyone is in the same situation!!

Swimming out in the ocean, typically you will do an out and back or swim along the shore with the shore to your left or right. This makes sighting pretty easy! The ocean is also where bilateral breathing will come in handy. These little mini waves that I spoke of might be hitting you from one direction. It’s not a bad idea to breath from only one side in this situation, but it could be either side so be prepared left or right.

Ok, you went out past the waves, did some swimming, but now you have to come back in. What I like to do when approaching the breakers again, is look under my arm as I raise it for a stroke, and see if a wave is behind me.  This will give you some warning without breaking your form too much. I love coming back to shore with the waves, it can be free speed if you use them to your advantage. Body surfing. You’ve probably practiced streamlining in your local pool workouts, now time to put it to some use! When a wave is about to break, again like when you entered, get your body into a smooth streamline position and ride the wave break until it fizzles out. If you get caught in a breaking wave, try to get under it, or if you are in shallow enough water, stand your ground until it passes. Wave typically break where you can stand up in the water, but it’s still not efficient to run to the beach.

You’ll get to this awkward point where you can swim but you can stand, but the waves are still breaking and pushing and pulling you making running in the water difficult. You can continue to body surf what you can use wave-wise, or you can do the side leg lift, basically lifting your leg from the hip and knee sideways up and over the waves and water. Then you’re done!


If I missed anything, let me know, and I will go back and edit this.