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Water Week: Getting Started in Open Water

August 9, 2011

Julie: Ok, I’ve been to the pool a couple times. What about open water swimming?

Dan: Make sure to do an open water swim at least one time before your race (especially if it is in the ocean). The wave starts can be intimidating and overwhelming if you are not used to the them. Learning to get in and out of the water is something that many people will not pay attention to, but should know how to do. When running out to an ocean swim from the beach, hop the small waves, until you are about knee-quad deep then dive under crashing waves. This will keep you from being knocked back from a wave and more efficient (you will swim much faster than you can run in the water with it that deep).

For novices, I would suggest walking or jogging into the water. Let the competitive athletes in your age group go. The worst thing for a newbie triathlete to do is to get caught up in what other athletes are doing. You need to race your own race, not someone else’s. This will also allow you to have less people around you when you start and will decrease any anxiety you may have. ( I would suggest a different approach to a newbie triathlete that has a swimming background)

I know many triathletes that suffered through their first swim. The heart races, you begin to breathe heavy and you are not used to swimming in a crowded situation. You will have people bump, hit, climb, pull you at some point during the swim. Do not panic, let those athletes work their way around you.

When exiting the water or coming to the end of your swim, I always use the rule that I swim until my stroke hand can hit the bottom of the water (I have long arms being 6’6) so this will differ amongst athletes. I think the less time you have to run through the water the better, again you are going to be faster swimming than running. When you stand up I use the “high knee” method where you spring off one foot and bring the other leg up above your waist in a bent position and alternate.

Running in sand when you first get out of the water is also a sensation you might want to experience before your first race.

In open water you will also need to practice “sighting“. I recommend every 7-10 strokes to pick your head out of the water to ensure you are traveling in a straight line. Nothing worse than adding a few hundred meters to the swim portion of the race. Or what I try and do is make sure I can always see someone to my left (I have a habit of only breathing to my left- niche I acquired when first swimming and feels comfortable). I still sight though in case the person to my left is offline, but tracking a competitor while breathing allows me to sight without lifting my head out of the water.

Julie: When should I wear a wetsuit? (per USAT)

Dan: If you are afraid of the swim (and most are- don’t let anyone fool you) and your goal is just to finish the race you can still wear a wetsuit even if the water temperature is above 78 degrees. The only stipulation is that you will not be able to claim an award should you post a top 3 or top 5 (depending on race) finish in your age group.

Also note that your body will heat up rapidly so you will want to ensure that you hydrate upon completing the swim.


1. Always swim with at least one other person in the open water, never swim alone.

2. Try and wear a bright colored swim cap or something visible from the shore so someone can spot you.

3. Do not swim out too deep. You will be fine swimming just past the breakers.

4. Before swimming, make sure and check to see if there is an undertow.

5. In an open water swim, I swim with my Road ID on ( this bracelet or anklet is customized by you with all your pertinent contact information (age, emergency contacts, allergies, medical conditions, insurance carrier etc)

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