HomeBlogTriathlon Tips: Surviving Your First Swim

Triathlon Tips: Surviving Your First Swim

Open water swimming can be intimidating for first-time triathletes. It’s much different than pool swimming. There are no lane lines to keep you on course, arms and legs are flying, and you have to deal with the elements. But with the right training, some open-water strategies, and the right gear, you can learn to love open water swimming!

Totally new to swimming? Start here…

If you’re new to swimming, you’ll want to get confident swimming in a pool before you swim in open water. Swimming is a hard sport to learn if you didn’t grow up doing it. Technique is important, and it’s hard to learn on your own. A good master’s coach or a swimming instructor can help.

Master’s swimming is for anyone over the age of 18. You can search online for programs in your area. Many are beginner-friendly, and you can ask the coach if they’ll be able to give you some individual help with your stroke. You can also look for swimming instructors who teach adult lessons, or beginning swimming programs put on by local triathlon clubs.
As you improve your technique, you can also work on improving your speed and endurance. Gradually increase the amount you swim.

For example, if right now you swim once a week, start by adding one more short swim. After a few weeks, add another short swim to get up to three per week. After you’re used to doing three swims per week, you can add more distance or intensity.

So, what should you do during each swim?

If you swim with a master’s program, the coach will have workouts for you. Let the coach know what distance triathlon you’re training for so you can make sure some of your workouts are geared toward distance swimming.

If you’re on your own for workouts, first decide how many swims per week you’ll be doing. If you’ll be swimming twice a week, plan on doing one easier swim and one harder swim with intervals. Your easy swim can include any drills you’ve been given to work on.

For your harder swim, start with a 10 to 20 minute warm up. Your main set should be at least 20 minutes. Swim intervals of 25 to 125 yards with 10 to 60 seconds rest between.

Some examples are:
• 10 x 100 free @ 2:00 (Every two minutes, you push off the wall and swim 100 yards freestyle.)
• 2 x 125 free @ 2:00, 4 x 100 free @ 1:40, 6 x 75 free @ 1:20, 8 x 50 free @ 1:00

Adjust the length of the intervals or the amount of time to make it work for you. If you can do three swims per week, add in a steady, continuous swim. This could be anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 yards, depending on your experience and the length of the race you’re training for.

You can add some variety by including other strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly), kicking, or pulling. If you’re doing four swims per week, add a second hard swim with intervals. This time, do longer intervals of 200 to 400 yards with up to 30 seconds rest for your main set.

Training for Open Water Swimming

Once you’ve built a good base up in the pool and are very comfortable swimming, you’ll be ready to swim in open water. It helps to practice swimming in open water before the race if you can. A pond or lake will work. Go with a friend for safety (and more fun!).

Two skills you’ll want to practice for open water swimming are sighting and swimming close to others.

When you start swimming in open water, pick an object to “sight”, like a building or a tall tree. It should be easily visible from the water. As you swim, every few breaths you’ll need to “sight breathe” to look for the object you picked out and make sure you’re swill swimming straight towards it.

To sight breath, when you take a breath you’ll slightly pick your head up in front of you, look at the object you’re sighting, and then roll your head to the side and finish breathing normally. With practice, you’ll figure out how often you need to sight. The straighter you swim, the less often you’ll need to sight.

Sighting is how you’ll make sure to swim straight in a race and not add any extra distance by swimming off course. In a race, there will normally be buoys to mark the course that you can sight. At some points in the course, like after you’ve passed the last buoy and are nearing the shore, there may not be a buoy visible. In this case it can help to pick out something else, like a race banner or a building, that you can swim towards.

When you swim in a race, you’ll be close to many other swimmers who are heading to the same point as you.

It can be helpful to practice this ahead of time to get more comfortable swimming close to others. You can practice this with one or more friends. Start right next to each other, pick the same point to swim to or sight, and don’t be afraid to bump into each other as you swim.

Both of these skills can be practiced in the pool too.

For sight breathing, just start by looking at the other end of the pool every few breaths as you swim. You can also simulate the close contact of a race by squeezing lots of people in one lane and having everyone race for the other end at the same time.

Open Water Swimming Gear

It’s helpful to have a wetsuit for open water swimming, especially if you live somewhere where the water can be cold. Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. Your body warms this small amount of water and you stay warm.

Besides keeping you warm, wetsuits also make you faster by making you more buoyant. They’re especially beneficial for weaker swimmers who aren’t naturally as buoyant.

When choosing a wetsuit, make sure it fits well.

If your wetsuit is too tight, it can feel restrictive to swim in, and if it’s loose, it will let in too much water and make you less buoyant. It’s most important to look at how well the wetsuit fits between your shoulders and crotch. The length of the arms and legs isn’t as important, and they can actually be trimmed if they’re too long.

Another important piece of gear for open water swimming is your goggles.

Sometimes you will be looking into the early morning sun as you swim, so it can be helpful to have a pair of darker, tinted goggles. Make sure they fit and stay on well, since you won’t be able to stop and adjust them! At most races, you’ll be given a swim cap that you need to wear, but it doesn’t hurt to bring your own cap just in case.

Race Strategies

Before the race, make sure you understand the swim course. Which buoy do you swim towards first? Do you need to stay on the right of left of the buoys? And what can you sight if the buoys are hard to see?

You’ll also want to warm up before the start. Do some easy swimming for a few minutes. Or if you can’t get in the water before the start, swing your arms in circles to warm up.

Next, think about where you want to position yourself for the start of the race.

You have a few choices. If you’re a beginning swimmer or not as comfortable with open water yet, start in the back of the group. This way you can start out at your own pace, and you won’t have other athletes swimming over you. You can always pick up speed as you go.

If you’re a confident, good swimmer, you can start in the front of the group. You’ll have the most people around you, but also the shortest path to the first buoy.

Another option is to start out to the side of the group. This can give you smoother water and less people to swim around, and won’t add too much distance.

When the race starts…

Make sure to sight often enough that you can swim straight and not add any extra yards. Also, remember that the buoys may not be laid out in a straight line.

For example, you might swim a long straight stretch marked with several buoys. If they aren’t in a straight line, it’s more efficient to aim for the last buoy in the line than swim straight towards each one.

Another strategy you can use in open water racing is drafting.

When you draft, you swim close behind someone else to stay in their draft and cut down on your resistance going through the water. You can swim faster than normal at the same effort. But, make sure not to touch the other swimmer’s toes. It’s annoying and you might get kicked! And you still need to sight – don’t trust that the person you’re drafting will swim straight.

As you’re nearing the end of the swim…

think about what you’ll do to start transitioning when you get out of the water – goggles off, unzip wetsuit, cap off, etc.

Keep swimming for as long as you can, even as the water starts to get shallow. It’s faster to swim than to try to run through the water. When your fingers start touching the bottom, then you can stand up and run.

Congratulations… you just finished the swim!


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