While sprint triathlons are commonly split between pool and open water swims, longer triathlon distances almost always take place as an open water swim. While it’s acceptable for the vast majority of your swim training to take place in the pool, if your race includes an OWS it’s imperative that you do at least a half-dozen open water swims beforehand to prepare yourself for the challenges that they entail. This is also a great opportunity to break in and test out your wetsuit, if you are allowed to use one.
One of the largest challenges when moving from a pool to an open water environment is swimming in a straight line. It’s common for new triathletes to check their GPS watches after a swim and find that they swam 10% or more longer than the official race distance, simply because they swam in S-curves the entire way or went too far off course. No longer will you have the big black line at the bottom of the pool to look at; you must rely on above-water clues. This entails sighting, a skill which you must develop before race day to have a productive open water swim. Sighting involves slightly raising your head out of the water and quickly looking forward every 6 to 10 strokes, then smoothly turning your head back to the side to breathe out. The race will generally put up large orange or red buoys to mark turns and the course lines, and these make excellent landmarks to focus on when sighting. Do not fall into the trap of assuming you are on a straight line and swimming with your head down for an extended period of time; odds are, you will look up and find yourself way off course. If you are very near land, you can peek at the shoreline when you turn your head to breathe, but you should still be sure to look forward every now and then to confirm you’re on the correct course.
Swimming in the open water can also be very disorienting at first, because much of the time you are effectively swimming blind. For athletes used to the clear waters of the pool, it may be a bit of a shock to look down into a lake or river and not be able to see anything except muddy water. This takes some getting used to, and you will learn to focus on the time your head is turned to breathe in order to catch daylight and keep yourself sane.
Finally, swimming in a lake, river, or ocean can be dangerous. There can be currents, cramps, submerged obstacles, and powerboats to deal with. Never swim in an open water environment alone; always swim with a buddy. One tactic which my coach implemented during our open water training swims together was to periodically swim up beside or behind me and intentionally bump into my arms or legs. This was helpful in preparing me for the chaos of the opening minutes of a triathlon swim. Alternatively, take a cue from my mom – she swims in the secluded cove of a lake near her house while my dad paddleboards alongside her.