If there’s one part that most new triathletes bristle at, it’s the swim. And for good reason – most people aren’t regular swimmers.
And to be morbid, it’s the stage you’re most likely to die in.
So we get in the pool and swim laps in preparation. We get to where we can knock out a mile or so, and think we’re ready. Getting to swim with a wetsuit is like a cheat code!
Then race day comes.
And you can’t see the bottom of this pool.
And you’re getting beaten in the face by someone’s feet. Someone punches your ribs. Another person is grabbing at your feet.
You’re pumping as fast as you can, and your breathing simply will not catch up.
So you change up your stroke, maybe roll over to your back for a moment. And now, you feel dizzy, drunk.
And that’s when you realize you’re only 200 yards in.
That was my first experience doing an open water swim in a triathlon.
The one thing that could’ve made it all so much easier: an open water practice swim.
Racing vs Swimming
Before the race, I laughed at the idea of an open water swim being difficult or somehow different from any other type of swimming.
I grew up in the country, after all. I rarely had access to a pool; swimming was done in a pond or a lake. I’ve had to swim away from a water moccasin, for chrissakes.
As I discovered, swimming in a race, surrounded by dozens of other racers, isn’t quite the same as leisurely floating around the dock in grandma’s pond.
Getting ready for your first swim requires time in the pool to build stamina and form. But you also need at least one jaunt into the open water for these reasons:
In the pool when you get tired or need a break, you simply put your feet down on the floor or hold on to the side. There’s a line below showing you when to turn, walls on each side letting you know how far you’ve gone. Open water provides none of these. It’s (usually) a dark brown mess, too deep to put your feet down. And when you look up, like I did, there’s not much to gauge your whereabouts with. So, you get super water drunk and euphoric (in the bad way).
- Adjusting to a wetsuit
It’s really nice to have a wetsuit because it provides some buoyancy, especially to your legs. But it’s a different feeling, especially if you have one with full sleeves. You’ll get experience putting it on, and taking it off in a rush if you feel so inclined (I do recommend trying that).
Also, pee in it when you first get in the water. Good to get comfortable with that as well.
Similar to equilibrium, open water forces you to lose your bearings. So you have to adjust your swim style and force your eyes forward on occasion. I personally try to raise my head up in between every 5th stroke or so. Don’t rely on other bodies in the water – they could be well off course, and take you with them.
- Getting used to sharing tiny spaces with others (and learning to draft)
Speaking of other people, bring a crowd to your practice open water swim. One, it’s safer that way. Two, you’re probably going to be in a community reservoir or lake, so your crowd will be less likely to be crushed by a drunken boater blasting Kid Rock as he speeds across the water. Get in the water really early – as in, when the sun rises – to avoid Kid Rock guy.
Also, swimming with others will help you adjust to getting slapped, and you can also learn how to draft off a stronger swimmer. (I’ve only experienced drafting a couple times. For me, it’s staying right off to the side, by their ankles.) (Make sure this won’t get you disqualified from your race, also.)
Stuff to Bring to Your Practice Open Water Swim (links go to my preferred items)
- Compression shorts (or your bike bib) to wear under your wetsuit
- Swim cap
- Flip flops
- Towel to stand on while you change (assuming you’re changing from the back of your car)
Where I Swim
If you’re in the Salt Lake area, you can usually find a group of people hopping into the water at the East Canyon Reservoir on Friday mornings during the summer. We try to get in the water around 6:20am, and try to get out before Kid Rock Boat Guy comes out to play.