Open-Water Swim Training Tips For Your First Triathlon

Techniques to remove stress and add confidence leading up to that inaugural race.

Freaking out in open water happens to the best of us. Even avid swimmers can use training tips and tactics to de-stress in open water on race day.

You can build your fitness in the pool, but there's not much that can prepare athletes, especially first-time triathletes, more than regularly practicing the basics of racing in open water. With that, here are a few ways to practice for what awaits in the first leg of your first triathlon.

Train in Open Water

open-water swim training

Give yourself the time for proper training and your first race will be a lot smoother. Photo: Todd Quackenbush/Unsplash

Leading up to that first race, try to build in one training day a week in open water, whether that's a lake, ocean or urban canal. Wear everything you intend to on race day – trisuit or two-piece, wetsuit (if allowed for your race), goggles, race-style swim cap and any accessories that will create comfort in the water.

For example, my ears trap water easily which can lead to ear infections. Since I lap swim with earplugs, I wear them for open-water, too, even though I don't flip turn in the lake. They prevent a stray wave from depositing water in my ear canal that I'd spend the rest of the race shaking out. Experiment with what makes you most secure.

Then just spend some time putting on your wetsuit over your base triathlon outfit, maneuvering the back zipper, adding sports balm at chafe points (ankles, wrists, neck, inner thighs) and removing the suit as efficiently as possible. You can do this a few times before you even start to swim and, of course, practice your transition out of the water and wetsuit strip when you're finished training.

Then get a feel for moving in your wetsuit – that first gush of cold water, the pressure points of the suit itself and where you experience any restriction in body movement or breathing. It's better to know those quirks ahead of race day. Tip: Don't borrow a wetsuit without trying it before the race. These need to fit right or they could do you more damage than good.

Also, try to schedule open-water practice sessions on both sunny and cloudy days, preferably around the same start time as your first triathlon. You want to be prepared to face sun glare off the water and currents that whip up on cloudy, breezy days.

Practice Getting Bumped

Swimmers jostle for position. Photo: Flicker

One of the biggest issues for first-time triathletes is the sensation of getting bumped in the water. When you're used to peaceful, regulated lap swimming, getting your body jostled at the mass start of an open-water triathlon can be very jarring.

It also happens along the swim course when someone passes you or you pass another swimmer. Body checks happen at buoy turn traffic jams and even in the final dash to the shoreline. So it's best to prepare for bumpage.

You can do this during a group swim session or alternately with a racer friend. Swimmers drafting behind can intentionally tap your feet and bump your body. Heck, knock your own goggles off and practice putting them back on while treading water. It might happen in a race. Tip: Some racers like to wear two caps -- their own and the race wave cap, with goggles securely sandwiched in between.

Dial in Your Sighting

Sighting is one of the most helpful techniques for open-water swimming. Because there are no lap lanes – only buoys, medical boats, swimmers and shorelines – to orient your trajectory, you'll need to look up and forward every so often. That's called sighting, and it will make you markedly more comfortable in open water.

You can practice this in open water or during any pool session. Just remember, you don't need to sight every stroke, and doing it wrong can lead to inefficient hip alignment and a very sore neck. To sight right, raise just your eyes, leaving your nose in the water, and breathe on your normal stroke. There are three common ways to sight. See what works best for you.

Try Calming Techniques

Photo: Unsplash

If you practice ways to get yourself back to even breathing, you can tackle anything that comes your way on race day. It could be a weird wave, a kick in the face, a course diversion, a dead fish – lots of little things can throw you off your game. But if you know how to get back to center and stay calm in open water, this will be your greatest asset.

Most athletes tend to start the triathlon swim very fast, whether they're trying to separate from the pack or they just get caught up in the flurry. Either way, there are always some heart-skipping moments in a mass start. Practice for this chaos in a pool (or open water) by sprinting, then easing back into a consistent pace, just like you'll do in a race.

Try a 500-meter set. Sprint the first 100 meters, then settle in to a steady race pace for the last 400. Do one of these sprint-to-pace sets each training session and your body will learn how to move from breathlessness to calm, consistent breathing in no time.

If you do panic or feel like you are hyperventilating, there are other immediate ways to slow your breathing in open water. The first is to turn over and float on your back for a few seconds. Do a few strokes of breaststroke to regain your calm. Or sidestoke with your head above water and get your bearings – and your breath – back on track.

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