Thoughtful Thursdays: The Open Water Swim

In this edition of Thoughtful Thursdays, I thought it might be helpful to talk about the open water swim a bit.  It seems to be the most daunting event for many triathletes.  And in fact, I’d guess that many prefer the relative safety of a pool swim.  There is a lot more to think about with an open water swim; rather than just worrying that you seeded yourself correctly and making sure to touch the wall at both ends, there are weather conditions, water conditions, sighting, and wearing a wetsuit to consider- just to name a few!

In my opinion, the single-most important thing to a successful open water swim is simple- RELAX.  I must admit I have been very lucky in this arena, since I grew up swimming on a swim team and taking many trips to lakes and beaches.  These experiences instilled a great level of comfort in water, which usually keeps me from going into panic mode if and when something goes wrong.  I know that thrashing and flailing about will not solve my problems, but almost always, relaxing my muscles and floating for a moment is going to re-orient me and eliminate some of the initial stressful thoughts.  The biggest hurdle of the open water swim is the mental aspect.  After you have trained in a pool for a certain distance, whether Sprint or longer, you know you can swim that distance.  But for many reasons, it just seems different in open water- it is no longer nice and neatly broken into clear swimming pools with sets broken into specific distances.  In open water, it is a some-what defined route you have to follow through often murky and sometimes tumultuous water.  In a race, you add in the other swimmers you have to worry about, and it can seem to be an overwhelming task.  But let me stop before I psych you out, that is not the goal of this post.  I want to share the things I’ve learned to be helpful in making the open water swim a success.

First things first, determine whether you are going to wear a wetsuit.  USAT rules say that you can wear a wetsuit when water temperature is 78°F or lower.  Between 78.1° and 83.9° wetsuits are allowed, however competitors will not be elligible for any awards.  At 84° or above, wetsuits are not allowed.  The reason wetsuits make competitors ineligible at higher temperatures is buoyancy, which is exactly the same reason I would highly recommend anyone to wear a wetsuit when it’s allowed (74° or under).  The wetsuit is going to keep your body more level in the water, particularly if you have trouble balancing or keeping your body horizontal.  Also, if you get in a pickle and get tired or cramped or have some other issue preventing you from continuing, the wetsuit is going to keep you afloat.  Very strong swimmers may not see the same performance enhancements as weaker swimmers, but they still do offer warmth in cold water.  The real drawback to wetsuits is the cost, at $200+ they’re not cheap, and for beginner triathletes buying a new wetsuit may not be a viable option.  There are options to rent, and you could always try and borrow one first or buy one used.  Just make sure it fits well and you have good range of motion in your shoulder area.  And like anything else, don’t try it out for the first time on race day.  Of course, I’ve broken this rule in just about all of my races, so I’m not one to talk.  For a wetsuit, though, you don’t want to be learning how to get it on and off on race day.  Try it out ahead of time, in open water if possible, but a pool is fine too (remember to rinse thoroughly with cold water if you take it in a chlorinated pool).  Ok, now that you’ve determined whether your race is wetsuit legal and decided whether or not to wear one, you’re heading to the race to set up.  Always bring two pairs of goggles, you do not want to swim in open water without them.  Usually the colorful caps indicating what wave you’re in are handed out at the beginning of the race, so you don’t need to worry about that as much.  I’d still bring one to be on the safe side.

Equipment? Check.

When you go to line up with your wave, consider the course and your expected strength compared with the other swimmers.  If you are a strong swimmer, you may want to line up toward the front.  Weaker swimmers will want to line up toward the back.  The swim start is going to be chaotic, and you are going to get kicked, pulled, shoved and swum over (or you might be the one kicking, pulling, shoving and swimming over people!), so you want to carefully consider where you want this to take place.  In my (not so vast) experience, I think in the future I will try to line up near the front toward the outside (farther from the buoy markers).  I may initially add a little bit of distance to my swim, but in the end I believe it will be worth it to avoid as much as the inside thrashing as possible and get into a rhythm quickly.  Once to the first turn buoy, I would want to be right on it.  I think that if I were expecting to be one of the weaker swimmers in the group, I would still line up on the outside, but toward the back of the group.  Since in that case I wouldn’t be as concerned about keeping up with the group as setting my own time, I’d definitely want to get into my rhythm without worrying too much about other people around me.

Chaotic start? Check.

The swim is by far the loneliest part of a triathlon for me.  Not that that’s a bad thing!  But it can be unnerving when you are swimming along and have no idea who’s close to you or where the pack is.  Particularly when the visibility is poor in and out of the water, you can find yourself wondering where the heck you are and whether you’ll ever get to the next buoy!  Relax. Practice sighting ahead of time in the pool so you are prepared to look for the buoy yourself.  Don’t rely on following other people.  I’ve heard horror stories of whole packs veering off-course and adding a lot of distance to their swims.  Even if you are drafting on someone, make sure you continue to sight for yourself.  (Side note- I have never been successful at finding someone to draft, and usually end up swimming up between their legs.  If you are good at this and have tips for finding a “draft buddy” please comment and share!).  In my last race, I planned to sight every 6 strokes, but I think that was a bit too often.  My plan for my next race is to practice sighting once per length of the pool, so in the OWS, I’ll sight every 10 strokes.  This is a personal thing, you just need to figure out what works for you.  If for some reason you lose sight of the buoys or can’t find it on a sighting, don’t panic.  Again, just relax, take a couple more strokes and try again.  It’s all downhill from the first turn buoy!

Swim? Check.

You did it!  Now that we’ve reached the shore, it’s time to get out of that pesky wetsuit.  Don’t get too ambitious and try and take it off all at once- you’ll end up waddling with it stuck around your ankles!  I don’t know how other people change this up, but what I do works pretty well for me.  As soon as I exit the water and start running toward transition, I move my goggles to my forehead.  As I’m running, I unzip the wetsuit and pull the top half off.  Then I take off my cap and goggles and continue running to my transition station.  Once there I discard the cap and goggles and immediately take off the bottom part of the wetsuit.  It’s easiest if you let it go inside out and just pull over the ankles that way (same goes for getting your arms out earlier).  There will be plenty of time after the race to straighten it out.  Now you’re out of the wetsuit and ready for the rest of your transition into the bike!

Transition? Half-check (since we didn’t talk about getting into bike gear- that’s a post for another time).

The absolute best thing you can do to prepare for an OWS is to actually get into open water and swim.  Even if it’s just to get comfortable, every chance you have to convince yourself that you are calm and comfortable in the water is going to help you on race day.  So, when the winds kick up some waves in an ocean swim, or the lake you’re in has zero visibility with the added plus of a rather dark and cloudy day, you will be relaxed and ready!  Just keep swimming!

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  1. #1 by specialkkluthe on June 13, 2009 - 8:40 pm

    Funny, I just posted about my first open water swim today on my blog! I totally understand the need to relax and luckily, I grew up swimming in lakes a lot too so I feel pretty comfortable with being in the middle of the lake. But my problem was not being able to catch my breath. Any comments on that?

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