January 3, 2017

An Introduction to Open Water Swimming

Open Water Swimming

If you set a new goal to do your first triathlon in 2017, this Introduction to Open Water Swimming will give you some great information to consider as you begin training. 

Prior to becoming a triathlete, I had never done an open water swim quite like the kind you do in a triathlon.  Sure, we’ve all swam in open water at the beach, across the break or off the back of a boat out in the middle of a lake or the ocean.  That’s not the kind of open water swimming we’re talking about.  Open water swimming for triathlon is freestyle swimming anywhere from 0.5-2.4 miles through a course marked by buoys and lifeguards in kayaks. 

When race day rolls around, it will never fail that you end up starting this leg of the race swimming toward the rising sun with the glare smacking the water and blinding you. I swear this happens to me more often than not!

Open Water Swimming

Once you’re in open water, try to relax, breathe normally and start swimming.  If you’re new to open water swimming, it is fairly common to enter the water your first time out and panic. So, it’s critical that you calm yourself down, take some deep breaths and then start doing what you know you are capable of doing – swimming!

In open water, your sense of direction will go straight out the window. There are no lines on the bottom of a body of water and no lane lines either, so every few strokes try to take a sighting stroke.  If you’re skilled enough, you can achieve that by angling your head slightly back and looking forward toward the next buoy (or a lifeguard in a kayak). If that skill isn’t quite yet developed in your toolbox (I have trouble with it too), try swimming a certain number of strokes say 5-7, then taking one breaststroke.  Sight during your breaststroke, then return to freestyle.  As you build your confidence in the water and calm yourself down, you will find you can take more strokes before needing to sight again especially if you can feel yourself wedged between a group of swimmers.

If you don’t sight or bilateral breath, you might be stuck swimming like your mom did when she didn’t want to get her hair wet.  That, or you’ll end up doing the breaststroke for half a mile.  I’ve even seen athletes doing the backstroke!  Really?  I don’t want anyone to drown, so if it’s backstroke or get injured, by all means backstroke.  But, if you find yourself doing the backstroke in a race, you probably weren’t prepared for the swim leg.  So, in addition to training in a pool, if you’re planning to participate in your first open water triathlon, it would be wise to check around your area for an open water clinic.  A number of triathlon clubs and swimming clubs offer them.  Check out  Open Water Swimming (OWS) across the USA to see whether your state offers any OWS specific training.

Speaking of wedged between swimmers…when the gun goes off and everyone takes off, it’s like a mad rush on Black Friday.  There’s pushing, kicking, and hitting going on with each stroke.  It’s a literal free for all!  Take note of this especially if you’re a newbie.  If you don’t want to start your race off like this, try to position yourself closer to the back and outside of your swim wave.  This will let all the swimmers vying to be top dog bruise each other and you can start your race a little calmer.  If you’re not trying to make the podium, whether you’re at the front of the swim wave or the back of the swim wave really doesn’t matter.

More and more events are transitioning to a staggered start where only two athletes enter the water every 5-10 seconds. This keeps that free-for-all from happening and gives athletes more space to acclimate to the water.

There will come a time during the swim when you will kick someone or hit them with your stroke, sometimes over and over and over again. Don’t let this rattle you.  Everyone out there expects this to happen.  Some say a quick “sorry” and keep it moving.  It’s not intentional (by most of us at least).  But don’t let someone else’s race interfere with your race just because you are both trying to occupy the same space. Just keep your stroke consistent and eventually one of you will surge ahead of the other and you can keep swimming until you end up in another pocket with the next swimmer.  It’s all part of open water triathlon swimming.

Open Water Swimming

Not all of your training can occur in open water unless you’re lucky enough to live near the ocean where these types of swim practices probably are a regular occurrence.  In my neck of the woods, I’m lucky if I get 2-3 open water practices in each season.   I’m not one to go swim open water without proper safety precautions being present, so I, generally, stick with the local tri clubs sanctioned practices.

These practices are also a good place to try out your wetsuit if your race will be wetsuit legal or you know you will need the wetsuit do to the season temperatures. A Word of Advice about Wetsuits: If your event will require a wetsuit, make sure you have practiced in open water in the wetsuit.  You do not want the first time you practice in a wetsuit in open water to be the day of your event.  Wetsuits are constricting.  Add being a newbie, being a newbie with little to no experience in open water and first time swimming in a wetsuit and panic may set in as soon as your feet come off the bottom of the lake.  Panic will cause your breathing to constrict and being in that wetsuit under panic will potentially put you in a hazardous situation.   Please be safe!  I’m not emphasizing this information to cause more anxiety than you probably already have about open water, I want everyone to have a great triathlon experience (especially their first one out) and put their safety first.

By and large, though, most triathletes swim training still takes place in lap pools.   Even when I train in a lap pool, I incorporate sighting drills into my workouts periodically.  Working in the pool to increase your endurance, speed and develop your stroke will help in the long run until you can work in some open water practices.   When I find a good swim workout, I laminate a clean copy of it so that I can lay it on the edge of the pool during my workout (a ziplock bag would work too).  I also make sure I have a water bottle with me whenever I swim.  Whether you’re out in the open water training or in the humid pool environment, you should periodically drink some fluid to keep hydrated.

Open Water Swimming

Since I’m guessing most of you don’t have the opportunity to get an abundance of open water swim time in, I thought I’d share some of my swim workouts with you. They are all PDFs, so print them, laminate them and keep them in your swim bag for workout ideas. They are always available on the Training tab above on my main menu.

1100 yards
1200 yards
1200 yards – Build, Drills and Sighting
1200 yards – Drills and Sighting
1400 yards
1450 yards – Drills and Timed Free
1600 yards
1800 yards
1900 yards
2000 yards
2200 yards
2250 yards

Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.  

The workouts provided on this website are for educational purposes only, and are not to be interpreted as a recommendation for a specific treatment plan, product, or course of action. Exercise is not without its risks, and this or any other exercise program may result in injury. They include but are not limited to: risk of injury, aggravation of a pre-existing condition, or adverse effect of over-exertion such as muscle strain, abnormal blood pressure, fainting, disorders of heartbeat, and very rare instances of heart attack.

If you engage in any of the training exercises from this website, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge PoweredbyBLING, LLC ( from any and all claims or causes of action.

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14 Comments on “An Introduction to Open Water Swimming

Ellie | Hungry by Nature
January 3, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Wow – there is so much great information here Cassandra! And open water swimming completely terrifies me – probably because the waters of Lake Michigan are always freezing and so choppy!
Ellie | Hungry by Nature recently posted…Whole30 Roasted Lemon Salmon in FoilMy Profile

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
January 5, 2017 at 11:10 am

Yes they are! I grew up in Ohio and my parents also had a home in Lake Orion, so I’ve spent alot of time in Michigan. Swimming there was much different from swimming in Lake Erie growing up. Open Water is often terrifying in the beginning. Find a local group that you can go out with. They’ll teach you the ropes. Let me know how you it goes once you give it a try!

Chrissy @ Snacking in Sneakers
January 3, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Even though I’ve done a bunch of sprint tris and an Oly, I still always start my swim wave in the back and outside corner. Swimming is my strongest of the three disciplines, but I love being able to get into a rhythm without getting kicked in the face, haha.
Chrissy @ Snacking in Sneakers recently posted…Pumpkin Breakfast Cookies {Vegan and Gluten Free!}My Profile

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
January 5, 2017 at 11:18 am

You and me both! I always take the outside and let all the other swimmers fight and claw for the inside! It’s all about a rhythm.

abbey sharp
January 3, 2017 at 3:04 pm

I’ve never tried open water sprint but this post contains such valuable information if i ever do!
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January 3, 2017 at 11:41 pm

Honestly, open water swim scares me. I would be okay doing it alone but with a bunch of other flailing arms that could wack me? Nope!
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Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
January 5, 2017 at 11:13 am

Carmy, it scares most people until they get in the water with a veteran and learn how to navigate the current…and those flailing arms of the other swimmers. 😉 I never recommend doing open water swimming alone. That’s a big safety concern to me. Always make sure someone else is either swimming with you or kayaking near you in case you need assistance.

jill conyers
January 4, 2017 at 3:47 am

You’re a beast and your tri posts are always inspiring.
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Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
January 5, 2017 at 11:17 am

Thanks, Jill! That really means a great deal to me coming from you. Inspiration is one of my purposes, as you know.

January 4, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Wow! I’m so impressed that you are doing this! I don’t see myself ever doing this but I would have never thought that it would be so intense. What a great post to inform others who may be thinking about this. Tons of great information.

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
January 5, 2017 at 11:16 am

There’s a learning curve for open water swimming that alot of people don’t realize. They try to go from the pool to open water and they are drastically different.

January 4, 2017 at 5:34 pm

This was a very interesting post! I’m not a big swimmer, and I get very anxious in open water, so I’m very impressed by people that do it.
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Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
January 5, 2017 at 11:14 am

It definitely takes practice to get comfortable.

February 8, 2017 at 9:25 am

Best activity to enjoy with our family is to go swimming. Specially during summer season. We go at the beach more often. It’s best when its clean and safe to swim at.


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