Oh-oh-oh-pen Water Swimming

Well, triathlon season is over.  My wetsuits are packed away and I'm back to swimming just once a week for maybe a half hour.  But I really do like swimming and I've learned, and improved, a lot since I started. 

One hurdle I had to face in racing and training for triathlon was the open water.  Now, when I began my foray into triathlon, I rationalized, "hey, I've swum all my life! I grew up swimming in lakes and pools!  I've got this."  I trained for months in pools: both 25 and 50 meters and my endurance was there. I could easily swim a mile in the pool and still feel great after.  So when I got to my first open water swim triathlon at the Quakerman Olympic Plus Triathlon in 2012, I felt confident and ready.  But nothing - absolutely nothing - prepared me for that swim.

I jumped in the warm, clear lake and swam around a little before the race started and felt great.  The buoys seemed pretty darn far away, but I was still feeling good.  Because the water temp was over 78 degrees and the race was not "wetsuit legal" (meaning in order to qualify for an award, you could not wear a wetsuit), pretty much no one was wearing a wetsuit in this race, which was a good thing because I didn't have one at that point.  My wave lined up at the start, the gun went off, I swam a few yards and .... OH MY GAWD.  My mind took over and my heart started racing and this is what happened:


I was used to seeing this:

And instead, I saw this:

So for about two-thirds of the .6 mile course, I did a modified side-stroke and back stroke until finally after I rounded the final buoy, I was able to get into a rhythm and bring it on home.  I realized then and there (and then for the next 3+ hours of the race on the bike and run) that I absolutely needed to get more comfortable in the open water.  

I am happy to report that I have reached that point.  Here are my tips for a newbie to get more comfortable and confident in an open water swim.

* Start Slow.  Start "Stupid Slow" *

The key to a happy swim for me is to start slowly - or "stupid slow" as I like to think of it.  If I race out of the gate like I am Michael Phelps, my heart rate zooms and it takes a long time for it to get back under control.  This actually happened when I was up in Lake Placid - no one was around me, the water was gorgeous, and there I was with my heart beating out of my wetsuit ... all because I started out way too fast.  So take it slow. Start at what feels like a crawl.  Breathe deep.  Barely kick.  Blow huge bubbles on the exhale.  And then pick up the pace.

* Sing Sing a Song *

This is a new trick my swim coach (note: another great tip - hire a swim coach!) taught me: sing!  Obviously not out loud, but in my head.  Singing a song keeps me happy and takes my mind off the distance that I'm swimming.  It also calms me down.  I do it in the pool, too, so when I'm in the open water, it is the great unifier, because I think to myself, "oh, it's just like the pool".  I gravitate toward ABBA in the water.  I mean ... I gravitate toward ABBA all of the time but I always sing ABBA in the open water.  That's the charm of me.

hello and thank you for the music ABBA friends - sorry

* Practice in Open Water *

Seems like it's pretty obvious, but I can't emphasize it enough: you have to get in the open water and practice swimming there.  Pools are great and I spend a majority of my time training in a pool. But the open water swims are key because you develop a comfort level with the water when you are in it more often.  There are several open water swim series near me - you pay for each session and you can swim in a 1/4 mile course in a local lake set up by a training company, and there are lots and lots of support kayaks in the water.  Make sure if you go into the open water you have someone with you or you are in a guarded spot.  I don't care how great a swimmer you are - this is just common sense.  If you need to find some open water swimming near you, you could just google "open water swimming" and your town or general area.  I actually found my open water swim series at an endurance sport expo.  So if your area has one of them, go check it out!  

* Practice in Pool *

You can also practice open water simulations in the pool.  The easiest way to do this is to simply close your eyes while you swim.  It is freaky at first, but really, it's a great way to make you feel a little more like you're in the open water.  You can also swim with a friend and ask them to start with you and/or to splash a bit when you share the lane.  In an open water race, you will get splashed and people will invade your space. It is all part of the game.  

* Wetsuit *

If you don't have a wetsuit, get one.  They make you incredibly buoyant, which makes you faster.  But the buoyancy is also peace of mind.  If I am swimming in open water and my anxiety starts to creep up, I remind myself that I am in a wetsuit, which will keep me afloat.  Obviously if you've never worn a wetsuit, you should practice in it before race day.  But wetsuits are pretty awesome.  And come on ... let's talk about how ridiculously sexy they are.

* Prepare Yourself * 

On race day, you may have a chance to warm up in the water or you may not.  At the very least, you should get in and roll around a little and blow out a ton of bubbles.  I don't know why, but this always helps me.  You've absolutely got to get your face in the water before you start swimming, especially if the temperature is cold.  Scope out the rescue kayaks.  Again, this is really just peace of mind: "ok, there they are. If I need them, I will find them. I will not drown."  Scope out the buoys.  Look at the water - is it really murky?  Is it clear?  You may not be able to see your hand in front of you.  When this happens, I just tell myself that the water looks like black coffee.  For some reason, that helps.  If you're nervous about swimming, find a "safe" location to swim.  Generally, this is off to the far side of the buoys and not in the middle of the pack.  You can also line yourself up at the back and even wait 10 seconds or so to start swimming after the horn blows.  Those 10 seconds are nothing in terms of a triathlon, but it will give you a bit of breathing room.  

* Mindset * 

Finally, adjust your mindset.  I used to think "it's so chaotic! They were kicking and grabbing and punching me! They were trying to swim over me!"  And really, except for the very rare tri-jerk, this just doesn't happen.  Everyone out there is doing the same thing: racing his or her own race.  No one is in that water intentionally throwing punches and grabbing feet or goggles.  It takes too much time and energy!  But contact in the open water happens.  And when it does, just move yourself over and remind yourself that the other person didn't mean it: she's just swimming her swim.  If there is repeated contact by the same person, a swift, light little kick should do the trick.  The person may just be trying to draft off of you (LOL - good luck if you are trying to draft off of me!) and the contact is truly unintentional.

There you go! I hope these tips are helpful.  I find these days I'd much rather swim and train in a lake than a pool.  I look at a pool much like I look at a treadmill or my bike trainer: it's great exercise and good for training, but it's just that: exercise and training.  When I'm in a lake swimming around or on my bike on the roads or running from here to there and back again, I have a distance and a destination, making the journey so much more fun.

Any other open water swim people in the house?  What are some tips or tricks that you have?

See you swoon,

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