How to Prepare for Open Water Swimming: Seven Tips

How to Prepare for Open Water Swimming: Seven Tips

Many new triathletes share the same common fear: the swim.

Without proper training, open-water swimming can be a challenging, exhilarating experience, and even scary experience, but with the right preparation you can ensure you're ready for the unique conditions of swimming in the great outdoors. Whether you're training for a triathlon or just looking for a new swimming challenge, here are some tips and techniques to help you prepare for open water swimming.

1. Train in Open Water Whenever Possible

The best way to prepare for open water swimming is to train in open water. Find a safe and suitable location, and practice swimming in the conditions you'll face on race day. This will help you get used to the temperature, currents, waves, water visibility, and daylight conditions you'll face during the swim section of your race. Mirroring the real conditions you'll face on race day will help you practice "sighting," the term used to describe finding and navigating from marker buoy to marker buoy on course.

2. Improve Your Swim Technique in the Pool

In open water swimming, technique is even more important than in a pool, as you need to conserve energy and navigate through the water efficiently. Work on improving your freestyle technique, including your body position, breathing, stroke mechanics, and kicking. You should also practice bilateral breathing (being able to breathe off the right and/or left side of your swim stroke), which will help you sight more effectively.

3. Wear the Right Gear

Wearing the right gear to train for the swim can make a big difference in your open water swimming experience. A wetsuit will help keep you warm, increase your buoyancy, making you more hydrodynamic, and ultimately improving your speed. Goggles with tinted or polarized lenses can improve visibility in bright sunlight or choppy water. Consider using earplugs or a swim cap to protect your ears from cold water and to prevent swimmer's ear.

4. Train for the Distance and Conditions

Make sure you're training for the distance and conditions of the open water swim you'll be participating in. If the water will be cold, practice swimming in cold water to practice a routine that will help you acclimate to the cold. If the swim is a long distance, gradually build up your endurance and practice pacing yourself. If the swim has a current or waves, practice swimming in similar conditions to get used to the motion of the water.

5. Practice Open Water Starts and Finishes

The start and finish of an open water swim can be chaotic. It's common for swimmers leaving the swim leg of the race to feel disoriented or dizzy from the swim, so it's important to practice these skills. Practice getting into the water. Are you comfortable running, or do you prefer to walk?

Practice entering the water. Get accustomed to the depth you need to comfortably start your swim stroke.

Practice swimming in a group of other swimmers. Practice sighting, pacing, and drafting. Practice exiting the water and running to the transition area. These skills will help you feel more confident and prepared on race day.

6. Be Prepared for Emergencies

Open water swimming comes with real risks, cramps or hypothermia can lead to really scary situations in open water, so make sure you're prepared for emergencies by swimming with a partner or in a group, pulling an open water safety buoy, carrying a whistle or other signaling device, and knowing the signs of hypothermia or other health issues. If you're swimming in a race, familiarize yourself with the course and emergency procedures.

7. Train for Psychological Adversity

Watch a triathlon event, and take note of where the bulk of the volunteer support staff congregates on the swim course: it's right at the start, where the swimmers who failed to acclimate to the cold water experience “cold shock,” comprising an initial gasp, hypertension, and hyperventilation, making it easy to feel panicked and overwhelmed about the long swim ahead.

You need to practice to prepare your physical ability to swim on the course, but more than in any other discipline of triathlon, you need to practice open water swimming to prepare your psychological ability to deal with adversity.

You will get bumped around by other swimmers -- maybe even kicked or hit in the face, knocking off your goggles; you need to practice for that to build the psychological fortitude to push on.

Tiger Woods is known for a lot of things, but unbeatable mental strength is perhaps his most recognized attribute. Growing up, Woods's father, Earl, would do absolutely anything—jingle change, pump the brakes of his golf cart, throw objects—to build his son's ability to endure through psychological adversity.

Introduce the same into your training. Swim with a partner, and give them free license to bump you, cut you off, knock your goggles off, or even pull your leg from behind to slow you down. All of these things are realistic scenarios, so why wouldn't you prepare for them?


Open water swimming can be a scary surprise on race day if you let it be. Prepare for race day by practicing in realistic conditions and simulating real psychological challenges to ensure you're ready for the conditions and distance of the swim. By training in open water, improving your technique, wearing the right gear, training for the distance and conditions, practicing open water starts and finishes, and being prepared for emergencies, you can feel confident and ready for your next open water swim.

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