How to Prepare for Open Water Swimming

The variable weather and environmental conditions that are experienced during open water swimming, create an environment that is very different to swimming in a pool and can change during the course of an Ironman or 70.3 event start.  Most events use either a rolling swim start, where you line yourself up according to your predicted swim pace, this can take up to 30 minutes to get the final swimmer in the water, or age group swim starts, can up to a couple hours, like at USAT Age Group Nationals, to get everyone in the water.

Mental Preparation for Open Water Swimming

Lower visibility, the stress of cold water, swimming close to others, no lane lines, and no floor or walls to rest on, often leads to anxiety. Open water swimming can cause a unique psychological burden for athletes, especially newbies.

Besides practicing swimming in open water before your event, there are a few things you can do race day, before the event starts, to mentally prepare yourself for entering the water and giving your best performance. Assessing your surrounding, consider the conditions you are likely to face. Preparing yourself in this way will help ease any surprises and alleviate unwanted anxiety.

Open Water Swimming: How to Survive | Triathlon Training | Wendy Mader | Linked Fitness CommunityThings to consider on race day include:

  • Buoy positions
  • Sighting cues
  • The location of the sun
  • The optimal line-up spot
  • Bottom conditions and water depth
  • Possible currents

Basic Swimming Pool Techniques

Before a swimmer tackles open water swimming, it is important to address feelings of anxiety in the pool.

Fear and lack of comfort with basic skills are often the first obstacle to a successful swim.

A successful race day finish relies upon you working on techniques in the pool that will allow you to address your comfort level and any obstacles that might impede your open water swimming experience.

How to Swim Faster in 30 days

There are many techniques that you can practice in the pool which will help prepare you for open water swimming.

I recommend the following:

1. Conserve your energy on race day by learning to float and improving your balance/stroke technique in the pool. Working on these techniques will result in a smoother swim and less energy expenditure.

2. Goggles often get hit and/or knocked off so practice treading water or floating while taking your goggles on and off.

3. Simulate swimming close to others. Firstly gather with 3-4 other athletes in one lane, each with one hand on the wall. Then push off at the same time and race across the length of the pool while pulling on each other’s legs and swimming on top of each other.

4. Simulate the lower visibility that you might experience in the open water by swimming the length of a pool with your eyes closed. If possible, you should also try to do it without lane markers.

5. Many athletes find wetsuits uncomfortable and constricting, especially around the chest when breathing. Prepare for this by investing in a wetsuit and practice swimming in it.

Swimming Made Easy

Advanced Skills for Race Day

Related: How to Survive and Open Water Swim Start

Once you are more familiar with your ability and comfort level in the pool, it is important to learn more advanced skills for race day. These include warming up, sighting the buoy, drafting, and going from a horizontal to vertical position.

Warming Up

If the race venue allows, warm up for at least 10 minutes before your wave start time. This includes getting in and out of the water 4 times to acclimate to the temperature. The conditions and temperature of the water can cause your heart rate and breathing to increase if not properly warmed up.

Related: Conquer Your Fears and Frustrations in Open Water

Sighting the Buoy

A technique to site the buoy is called “alligator eyes“. Whilst you are swimming, lift your chin so your goggles clear the water and you are looking forward while exhaling. During this time, site the buoy and then turn your head to the side and inhale like you normally do in the pool. It is important to sight frequently as accurate sighting can save you time and energy.


Position yourself in your wave according to your ability. If you are a strong swimmer, set yourself up behind faster swimmers to catch a draft.

Swimming directly behind (or to the side of and behind) another swimmer, will expend less energy as you will be swimming in the faster swimmer’s slipstream. You will also have a faster split if you are able to pace behind someone slightly faster than you.

A newbie should also consider lining up on the outside edge of their wave to get a clearer view of the water ahead. When the gun goes off, wait a few seconds before you start so that more experienced athletes are less likely to run into you when they begin.

Transition from Horizontal to Vertical

If you are not able to practice open water run transitions, you should simulate them in the pool. An example workout, is to warm up 10 minutes, and then swim 100 yards or meters at race pace.

Once complete, immediately hop out of the water and jog in place to simulate going from a horizontal to vertical position with a high heart rate.

Each time your practice swimming in open water, you will achieve a different experience to take with you on race day.

Related: Practice Makes Perfect: Triathlon Transition
If you are looking for an in depth analysis of your freestyle swim stroke, click on this link to get the details of how to film yourself in the pool and send it to me. I have been teaching adults how to swim and swim technique for 17 years. My approach is simple and honest.  Let me know if you have questions by leaving me a voicemail on my website

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