Triathlete swimming in open water with a safety buoy in tow

Read this Before Your First Open-Water Swim

Open water swimming is an integral part of triathlon that involves swimming in natural bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and oceans. For new triathletes, open water swimming can be a daunting experience, but with proper preparation and guidance, it can be a fun and exciting aspect of the sport. In this article, we will discuss how to find a good place to practice open water swimming, prepare the necessary accessories, practice the unique open-water swim skills, and swim in open water safely.

1. Finding a Good Place to Practice Open Water Swimming

The first step to open water swimming is to find a safe and suitable location to practice. Local swim clubs are a great shortcut to finding the best open water swimming areas or organized swim events in your area.

If you don't have the benefit of others finding your new open-water swimming spot, the next best bet is to go where people swim already -- find a local beach area where locals congregate and swim in the summer. It's likely that this spot has many of the characteristics that make for a great spot.

2. Preparing the Necessary Accessories

Once you have identified a safe and suitable location to practice open water swimming, it's time to prepare the necessary accessories. Essential items for open water swimming include a wetsuit, swim cap, goggles, and swim buoy (read this for more information on essential triathlon training gear).

A Wetsuit

Wetsuits provide buoyancy and insulation, keeping you warm and helping you keep your shoulders, hips and feet in alignment, so you can swim faster. Make sure you select a wetsuit that fits snugly but is not too tight.

A Swim Cap

Swim caps keep your hair out of your face and make you more visible to others around you -- especially important when swimming in open water when boats can be nearby.


Goggles are essential for visibility and to protect your eyes from the water. Look for goggles that comfortably, and allow you to see far enough to navigate from point to point (called "sighting" in triathlon lingo). On race day, you'll need to be able to "sight" your way from buoy to buoy as you make your way to the swim finish.

  • Pro tip: where your goggles touch your face, rub that part with petroleum jelly (Vaseline) before putting on your goggles, and put a little extra around the "seal" formed to keep goggles from leaking

A Safety Buoy

A swim buoy is a safety device that is essential for open water swimming. It is a brightly colored inflatable buoy that you attach with a belt around your waist and pull behind you while swimming. It helps you stay visible to other swimmers, boats, and rescue personnel. It also provides a safety net if you get tired or need to rest while in deep water. Don't leave shore without one.

3. Practicing the Skills Needed for Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming requires different skills than swimming in a pool. It's important to practice these skills before participating in a triathlon. Some of the key skills you need to practice include sighting, drafting, and navigating.


Sighting involves lifting your head out of the water to look forward and orient yourself. This is important in open water swimming, where there are no lane lines or lane markers to follow. It'll take some practice to do this seamlessly without disrupting your swim stroke, and it'll take some trial and error to find a pair of goggles that are both comfortable enough for the long swim, and allow for the long line of sight needed for open water sighting and navigation.


Drafting is swimming behind another swimmer to conserve energy and reduce drag. Drafting is not allowed on the bike portion of most triathlons, but it is allowed during the swim; learn how to do it to save time and energy.

Practice these skills in a pool or calm open water location before progressing to more challenging waters. Incorporate them into your training sessions and gradually increase the distance and duration of your swims.

4. Swimming in Open Water Safely

Safety is paramount when swimming in open water. Here are some tips to help you swim safely:

  • Always swim with a buddy or in a group
  • Wear a brightly colored swim cap and tow a swim buoy to stay visible
  • Know your physical limits and don't push yourself beyond your comfort level
  • Stay aware of your surroundings and be mindful of other swimmers, boats, and wildlife
  • Check the weather and water conditions before swimming
  • Follow any posted rules or guidelines for the swim location

Open water swimming is an exciting and challenging aspect of triathlon. With proper preparation and guidance, you can safely and confidently tackle open water swimming. Remember to find a suitable swim location, prepare the

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