Open Water Swimming Tips
Swimming in open-water (river, lake or ocean) is very different to swimming in the clear warm waters of a swimming pool. Besides adjustments that you may need to make to your stroke technique (which we will discuss shortly), the biggest factor for most people is adjusting to this strange environment and overcoming the fear and anxiety that it often represents. The simple tips below, can help master the transition of converting yourself from an efficient pool swimmer into an effective open-water swimmer.
1. Get used to wearing your wetsuit.
Complaints of heavy arms and shoulders are common. The reasons for these problems boil down to one of two things:
- the fit of your wetsuit / how you put it on
- the technique that you use when swimming in your suit
Getting your suit fitted for you is absolutely essential and we'd always recommend trying a suit on first before buying it; you're taking a gamble with an online purchase.
Even with the right fitting suit, many people hurry to put their suit on before a race and so fail to put it on properly. Make sure you pull the suit as high up into your crotch as possible and get a partner to 'shoe-horn' your shoulders in by pulling the suit on around your upper back.
Once on, a little bit of water down the neck of the suit will both prepare you for the shock of the cold and also provide a little bit of lubrication between you and the suit.
The wetsuit inevitably constrains your stroke technique somewhat. Try adapting your stroke to combat this - don't aim for a really high elbow recovery as you'll simply fatigue your shoulders by working against the material of the suit. Instead, adopt a slightly straighter arm recovery technique and swing your arms over the top. Make an effort not to force this movement…work with the suit, not against it.
If you are someone with good natural buoyancy and feel your legs/feet are too high and unbalanced in a suit then you try raising your head slightly when you swim and looking slightly further forward. This will help bring your legs down a touch and give you better balance with the suit on. This problem is more common with women as they carry their buoyancy lower down their body.
2. Overcome Anxiety
Focus on your body and your breathing. If you do struggle with your breathing and relaxation in the pool, don't see this as stopping you swimming in open water. Instead. see it as a prompt for improving your breathing.
Anxiety in open-water is normally caused by extrinsic factors in the watery environment around you - depth, cold, not being able to see far (if at all!) and having other swimmers in close proximity to you. All of these factors lead to the same physical response - holding your breath.
Holding your breath immediately increases the anxiety further, things start to feel out of control and you may even feel a sense of panic. For many their race is off to a very bad start - or even finishes there and then. Focus instead on intrinsic factors that you can control, for instance breathing, hand entry and smooth strokes. At the race start, block out everything that's happening around you - all those things can take care of themselves. Instead, just focus on yourself, the starter and your first 'sight'.
If you do start to panic during the race then just pause or flip over onto your back for a few seconds. Take a few deep easy breaths, recompose yourself and keep those deep easy breaths going when you start swimming again.
Everyone feels some anxiety in open water, even great swimmers - it's normal. So believe in yourself, you can beat it.
3. Swimming Straight
Sighting techniques are needed to navigate accurately around the swim course. No matter how good your sighting technique, it always costs energy or speed to sight whilst swimming. This is because when you lift your head, your bum and legs want to sink. But not swimming straight means swimmer further! So you need to find the balance that best suits you. Only practise will do that.
Find the balance -
1) sighting creates extra drag and slows you down
2) if you're not swimming straight you are wasting lots of
energy (and speed) constantly changing direction.
Breathing to one side in training can cause problems. To swim straight you need a symmetrical stroke and the natural way to become symmetrical is with bilateral breathing. Maybe that's not what you wanted to hear if you find bilateral a challenge but that's the truth. Spend time developing your bilateral breathing in the pool and it will have a massive benefit on your speed in open-water.
4. Master the Art of Sighting
You may think that sighting is as simple as lifting your head to look forward and see where you are going but it needs a great deal of skill and technique to do it well. The world's best triathletes and open-water swimmers can sight without disrupting the rhythm of their stroke or their body position in the water, and this is key.
Time your sighting just before you're going to take a breath. So if you're about to breathe to your left, lift your eyes out of the water just before by pressing down lightly on the water with your lead arm (in this case it'll be your right). Only lift up enough to get your
eyes just out of the water. Then turn your head to the left to breathe, as you do so, letting it drop down into the water to a normal position.
By keeping a low head position when sighting and then breathing to the side you can keep normal body rotation in your stroke. This helps keep the rhythm of your stroke going and your speed up.
It should be a fluid, rhythmic part of the stroke as opposed to 3 separate movements. There's a good chance you won't see exactly where you need to be going with one look forward - but don't panic if you don't see much first time. Over several strokes build up a picture in your mind of what you are looking at and where you are going. It will gradually become clearer and clearer as you progress forward. It does depend on water conditions and visibility but normally you'd look to sight about every 9 strokes.
Do your homework in advance of the race and know the layout of the course. Most importantly, be familiar with large immovable objects on the horizon to sight and know how they line up with the course buoys round the course. For instance, the first buoy may be 500m from the start and it's unlikely you'll be able to see it in the melee of the race start. So, knowing a large tree/ building/ hill on the horizon and where it lines up with the first buoy will help ENORMOUSLY. Sight on it instead of the buoy and you'll hit the target in no time.
Make no mistake, efficient sighting technique and the ability to swim straight can make a huge difference to your swim time. In a race no-one wants to swim any further than they have to! Time spent in the water is the best way to master it.
5. Advanced sighting techniques involve using your environment.
anything large behind it. For example trees, hills, houses, the sun! etc.
If a mountain is in the same direction as the buoy you are aiming for, use
it. If its bigger it'll be easier to spot and therefore you'll spend less
time with your head in the air.
You can also use side references, such as in Glendalough where the cliffs
run parallel with you. So if you take note of it on your breathes you can
use it to stay heading the direction you want.
Also you can use chop and waves to stay on course. The wind may whip up
waves on any water surface, and these wont change in the time it takes you
to swim a race. So take note of where waves are hitting on you as you head
toward the buoy. Then keep them hitting that spot and you should stay on
course. For example, you are heading out to the first buoy and the wind and
therefore the waves are coming from your right and a little to the front.
They are hitting you on the right ear and shoulder. Keep them there, if the
waves start hitting more onto the top of your head or onto your side then
you've gone off course.