14 Tips for Triathletes to Improve Their Open Water Swimming

To make the most of your swims here are 14 top tips for triathletes to improve their open-water swimming and breathing technique: The weather is getting nicer and most places where you can swim in open water are opening up again. The water might still be pretty cold, so you might not be able to stay in as long as you want at first.

To make the most of your swims here are my top tips for you  to improve your open-water swimming:

1. Swimming in circles 

Most people swim off course in the opposite direction to the side they are breathing on because they tend to lean on the arm that is extended while they breathe.

Keep your extended arm straight when breathing and resist the urge to lean on it for support. This is easier said than done, but it should be much easier to do when you’re wearing a wetsuit because your arm will be wrapped in buoyant neoprene.

Keep your wrists pointed down when you’re swimming underwater, but don’t break them; keep them firm and your hands soft. Your hands aren’t paddles; they’re sensitive. Soft hands let you feel the weight of the water, and if the water feels heavy then you’re getting more propulsion. If the water feels light then you’re slipping and losing ground.

If you feel your body deviating from your intended course, close your eyes and stroke six to eight times to heighten your senses.

If you can keep your eyes open and stay over the line, then you are swimming straight. If you are not able to do this, then you need to adjust your stroke. Try gradually increasing the number of strokes until you can stay straight for 20 or more strokes with your eyes closed.

2. Open-water swim anxieties

The reasons for feeling anxious in open water may vary. Some people may feel constricted by their tight neoprene gear or uncomfortable in the cold. Others may feel unsafe due to the lack of visibility.

How to overcome your fears

Splash your face with water and enter the water slowly to avoid shortness of breath. This is exaggerated when wearing a wetsuit that restricts your diaphragm.

To gain more experience in open-water swimming, do it more often. You’ll begin to love it the more you do it.

3. Getting out of the wetsuit efficiently in T1

From the start, buy a quality wetsuit. One that fits correctly, remember excess water in your suit will slow you down, water is a heavy passenger you don’t need.

Remove your suit as soon as possible and push it down to your waist. There is water between your skin and the suit which will act as a lubricant, but if you wait too long the water will drain out and your suit will stick to your skin.

A lubricant like BodyGlide can help make taking off the suit easier, especially in areas like the wrists and below the knees where the fabric tends to turn inside out. If you’re competing in a Triathlon, start taking your suit off down to your waist on the way into transition.

4. Fading in front crawl

Your goal should be to find a balance between length and rate that works for your current technical ability and fitness level. This is similar to finding the right gear on your bike.

If you make your strokes too long, you will move slowly. If you make them too short, you will use too much energy.

If you want to swim at a speed of 1m per second, you will need to develop a stroke length of at least 1m per stroke and maintain a stroke rate of one stroke per second. This is not an easy feat and will take patience and time. However, if you can do this, you will be able to swim an Olympic-distance swim in 25 minutes, which is quite good for the average triathlete.

It’s not about being physically strong or fit, it’s all about technique (how far you move with each stroke) and rhythm (cadence). Get these things right and you’ll swim faster and leave your competitors behind.

5. Front crawl breathing

Breathing on both sides is a good way to practice swimming. This means that you should breathe on one side, then the other side, and then alternate sides. You can do this by breathing on the left side on one length, and then the right side on the next length, and so on.

Swimming on your back helps you develop symmetry in your stroke and balance the muscles you are using. It is also a skill that is useful when the waves are coming at you on your natural breathing side.

6.  Goggles misting up

If you are swimming in cold water and working hard, the warmth from your eyeballs will cause the air to condense and fog up where the lenses of your goggles meet the cold water.

You should rinse your lenses and then shake them before putting them in. Spit works by creating a film that fills in blemishes on the surface of the lens. More modern goggles have a built-in membrane that prevents misting.

7. Finding the wetsuit restrictive

While many triathletes may prefer not to swim with a wetsuit, they are here to stay. For most people, wetsuits act like life preservers by keeping you warm and helping you float if you get into trouble. More importantly, wetsuits are also worth about 2 minutes per mile, even to the best swimmers out there, and considerably more to those who struggle with balancing.

A wetsuit’s purpose is to keep you warm and snug in the water, so it’s no surprise that they can feel a bit restrictive. If you’re a strong swimmer who doesn’t feel the cold too much, you might want to try a sleeveless wetsuit. This way, you won’t have to fight the neoprene fabric every time you lift your arms out of the water, and it might help to prevent lactic acid build-up in your shoulders.

8. Getting dizzy after the open water swim

When you get off a boat and feel fuzzy, it’s because you’ve been lying down and blood has been directed to your upper body. As soon as you stand up, the combination of gravity and using your legs draws the blood away from your head.

If you experience a drop in blood pressure during a swim, your body will try to balance it out by making your heart beat faster. You can also help by swimming a little harder during the last part of the swim. This gets the blood flowing to your leg muscles and reduces the pressure difference that causes low blood pressure and dizziness.

9. Coping with the crowds

The start of the race resembles a sea lion mating ritual, with everyone climbing on the back of the person in front. The person in front gets stressed and tries to kick the teeth in of the person behind them. People can become aggressive when they think someone is trying to drown them.

You can avoid all this by lying flat in the water and gently kicking your feet to hold yourself up. You can move forward or back by lightly sculling your arms.

This will allow you to start the swim farther away from the pack, but if you’re still feeling anxious, you can just move yourself to the side or towards the back. Be careful about moving too far back, because there will be plenty of novice swimmers who will get in your way within a few hundred meters.

10. Structuring your swim

If you are limited on time or the cold water causes shorter sessions, then having a plan will help you make the most of your swim. It’s also a good idea to keep your sessions shorter if you haven’t been in the water for a while to avoid shoulder or other injuries.

If you are swimming with a wetsuit, be careful not to overstress your shoulders as it will limit your shoulder movement.

Come up with a goal for your swim. It could be something like getting used to the water or trying out a new wetsuit (not on race day). Once you have your goal, put together a plan for the session.

11. Acclimatization

The best way to get used to the water is to wet your wrists and eyes as soon as possible. There are receptors around your eyes that will help your brain and body adjust more quickly if they get wet with cold water. Your pulse points on your wrists will do the same thing. I find that splashing water on these parts before getting my body submerged helps me prepare in a less stressful way.

A breathing tip for swimmers is to make sure you breathe and not hold your breath. When taking your first strokes, remember to breathe out under the water. This sounds straightforward, but many swimmers, especially in colder, open water conditions, can sometimes forget and hold their breath.

12. Drills and skills

Once you are in the water, try to get your face in the water as soon as possible and do 40-50 continuous easy strokes concentrating on exhaling under the water fully before turning your head to take a breath.

These other drills are also great for improving your skills in the water and feeling more connected to it. Even though you won’t spend as much time on these due to the temperature, it’s still worth it to get a feel for the water and feel more relaxed.

After swimming a few hundred meters of front crawl, it’s always worth practising crocodile eye sighting and bilateral breathing (breathing to both sides). Try to sight every five strokes and then every seven and then every 10 – which one works best for you? Did you veer off to the left or right? You can get to know the imbalances of your stroke. You can do the same for bilateral breathing. Breathe every 3 for 25-50m then every 5 and then every 7, which one works for you? Did you go straighter breathing bilaterally?

We will cover other open water swimming drills like buoy turns and starts next time.

13. Sprint finish

End your session with a burst of energy to get used to the end of a race. This will also warm up your legs and body, and get your legs ready to walk out of the water and in good shape for the bike ride.

If you are slowly getting back into open water swimming, don’t push too hard. Go a little faster than your normal stroke, with more arm cadence and kicking. Remember to start the kick from your hip, not your knee.

14. Open-water swimming kit recommendations

To ensure that your open-water swimming is enjoyable, it is worth making sure that you have the best possible gear for the conditions.

Be safer, be seen

The bright orange is also very visible in the water and on the shore too. A Swim Secure wild swim bag is a great way to be safe and seen in the water. The bag is bright orange, which makes it visible in the water and on the shore. The bag has a large daysack area that can hold wet and dry kit.

There are many types of tow floats, some with dry areas for your phone and keys and other simpler inflatable rugby ball-type inflatables. All are designed to be seen in the water and they don’t cost much to help keep you safe.

After you swim

After you swim, make sure you’re bundled up before you shower. The shock from hot water can be painful if you’re not already warm. I like to take after-swim tips from surfers and use a surfers poncho. They’re big enough to change under and keep you warm when you get out of the water.

The wetsuit bag is also affordable. try the surfers’ wetsuit bag which you can step on to change into the wet suit so your feet don’t get sandy. Once you’re out of the wetsuit, you can pull the drawstring and carry your wetsuit in the bag so it doesn’t get your car or other gear wet.


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