Open Water Swimming: The Complete Guide For Triathlon Beginners

We’ve said it multiple times, open-water swimming is the best way to become more comfortable, stronger, and faster in the swim leg of a triathlon. Even though you could argue that form/drill work is better done in a pool, and getting precise interval workouts is tougher in the open water, we created a pool workout/open-water workout translator to help with that.

There are now many affordable smartwatches that can be used in open water, so there is no longer any excuse for not having a pool clock.

Below we cover some open-water safety tips and then get to some open-water safety products you might not even know you needed:

Basic prep for an open water race or event

Always be prepared

If you pack everything the night before, you will be more confident and less likely to be over-excited.

Be confident

Despite feeling like some skills need work, we shouldn’t let that stop us from being confident. As Nike says, “Just do it!”

Go for it from the start but stay calm

When you are getting in the water, it is important to be calm. If you like being in a crowd, you should create a positive and confident energy that other swimmers can contribute to. This will make it more fun for everyone.

If you are feeling anxious around crowds, try to position yourself far away from the group. This may be difficult if you are racing, but do your best to stay calm and take deep breaths. Some people feel more comfortable talking to an event official or somebody associated with the race about their concerns.

The official or volunteer might be able to offer something that could provide comfort, even if it’s a few encouraging words. Some events also rely on “Angel Swimmers” to guide and assist nervous swimmers. They aren’t at every race, but if you’re nervous, you can ask an official if you can have a dedicated buddy for your swim.

Remember to breathe

If you’re feeling panicked, take deep breaths and think of something calming. If you’re in the water when you start feeling panic, roll over and float on your back until you feel better.

You should always pay attention to what is happening on land and be aware of your surroundings. If you start to feel panicked, you can look for a safety kayaker or other support crew member and ask for help. Or, you can take a moment to hold onto the boat until the feeling passes.

Know the drill when drafting

While drafting is allowed in open water swimming, it can be difficult to do successfully. You can never be sure if the person in front of you knows where they are going or if they are someone you would rather not follow. You could end up catching up to them and getting kicked in the face—ouch! Just be aware of your surroundings and who is around you; it’s okay to draft off of another swimmer for a little while, but if you get too close, pass them and move on to your next target.

Sight land and buoy targets carefully

Sight more buoys or points in choppy water or with a current, and less frequently in calm water.

Talk to yourself

If you’re freaking out, try talking through the situation out loud. This can help you figure out how to fix the problem, and you might even find yourself laughing at the situation. Just like Dory from Finding Nemo, remind yourself to “just keep swimming.”

Check water conditions before entering

It’s important to survey an area before swimming in it to identify any potential hazards. There might be boats in the water that you can’t see, or the water quality might be poor. There might also be signs missing that would warn you not to swim in that area.

Have a plan for emergencies

What is your plan in case something happens to you or your friend? Does anyone else know where you’re going? Will anyone be watching from shore, ready to take action if you need assistance? Plan for everything and remove as much uncertainty as possible.

Understand currents, rip currents, and such

The strength and direction of currents can be an unpredictable variables in the open water swimming, as opposed to pool swimming.

This topic alone warrants a whole article, but for now, keep the following tips in mind:

1. If it looks quick, it is

Use caution when deciding whether to enter the water.

2. Ride it ‘til it weakens

If you get caught in a rip current, your best bet is to ride the current until it weakens, then swims out of it, parallel to the shore. Once you’re past the rip, you can turn and swim back into shore.

3. Stay calm, be safe, and be aware

Tides and currents can create hazardous conditions while swimming, so it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and remain calm if you find yourself in a current.

4. Know your surroundings

Pay close attention to your surroundings. Things like boats, other swimmers, the weather, and different water conditions can be dangerous. Be careful and get out of the water if you feel like you’re in danger.

Relax and play!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the waves, take a deep breath and try your best. You can even pretend to be a calm dolphin swimming through the water. But most importantly, make sure you’re staying safe. Don’t be afraid to head back to shore if it gets to be too much. You can always come back another day and try again. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

What about temperature and open-water safety

If you’re unfamiliar with a body of water, you must research it beforehand. What’s the water temperature? If it’s below 75 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll probably want to wear a wetsuit. If it’s well above that, though, a wetsuit could actually put you at risk of overheating.

If the water temperature is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, you will need a wetsuit and some additional equipment, such as a neoprene cap, booties, gloves, and a thermal wetsuit. A water temperature below 50 degrees is not advisable.

Open-water bits of gear

Zone3 Hydration Swim Safety Buoy

The Zone3 tow float is a unique piece of equipment that combines a tow float that provides floatation and high visibility with a 1-litre hydration bladder that allows you to drink while out in the open water. With this contraption, you no longer have an excuse for not having a water bottle on deck.

A tow float is an essential piece of open-water equipment for staying safe, especially if you’re swimming alone or in an area with boat traffic. Zone3 makes different versions of tow floats, including one that allows you to store gear and keep it dry, and another with backpack straps for swim runs or carrying gear out to the water.

Coros Pace 2 Smartwatch

Most triathletes excuse themselves from open water swimming with, “But how will I do my _____ workout?” In the past, open-water swimming generally consisted of swimming at a continuous, medium pace. Although this can still be beneficial, now with the rise in popularity (and affordability) of smartwatches that can be used in open water, you can complete almost any pool workout in the open water.

We’re fans of this smartwatch because it’s more affordable than some other options, it works well when you’re swimming in open water, and you can program it to vibrate when you reach a certain distance. Although it doesn’t have any open-water workouts that you can preprogram (you’ll have to upgrade to something like this watch for that), it will do most of what you need if you set it up correctly.

Swimrunners Whistle

This whistle is a great way to call for help if you need it. It is visible, has good grips, is non-corrosive, and floats. You probably won’t need it until you really need it, so it is a good idea to tie it to your zipper and practice getting it out in advance.

New Wave Fluorescent Green Silicone Swim Cap

New Wave Swim Buoy Silicone Swim Cap (Green) (Orange) : Sports & Outdoors

A bright swim cap is essential if you want to be visible while swimming in open water. You should not wear a white race cap or a dark-coloured cap, because boaters might mistake you for something else in the water.

Get a green or neon orange life jacket if you want to be safe. Boaters usually don’t hit buoys, so a life jacket that looks like one will help you stay safe.

Roka X1 Goggle

ROKA X1 Goggle - Silver Mirror (Men's Fit Reference) - YouTube

To swim safely in open water, it is essential to have a pair of goggles with a wide range of peripheral vision. Goggles should be replaced more often when swimming in open water, as visibility is key to avoiding obstacles and dangers.

Bringing two pairs of goggles, one light and one dark is a good safety measure when swimming in open water. You can choose the appropriate pair based on the conditions.

Restube Swim

This little belt has a mini-pack attached to it that automatically inflates when you need it, making it more of an emergency device. It will provide enough floatation and visibility if you or a swimming partner get into trouble.

A wetsuit will not hinder your swimming at all, and a swimsuit will only slightly hinder your swimming. The pull tab on the wetsuit can also be used as a whistle if you need extra attention.

Quintana Roo HYDROfive Wetsuit

Men's HYDROfive

The main reason why many first-time triathletes choose to wear a wetsuit is that it helps to keep them warm in cold water. However, experienced triathletes also appreciate the floatation benefits that a wetsuit provides.

The HYDROfive wetsuit will help you float and swim faster while costing less than other similar wetsuits.


It’s always a good idea to be aware of your personal safety, even when taking part in an organized event like a race or swim. Just relax and enjoy yourself, and try to create a positive atmosphere for yourself and those around you. Nature can be unpredictable, but you can prevent accidents by being careful.


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