Open water swimming can be a daunting task. Many athletes consider the swim the hardest part of a triathlon. It’s been said that you cannot win the race in the swim, but you can lose it. This can be interpreted many different ways but the message is the same. There are many variables that go into the perfect open water swim. Let’s talk about a few of them.
First and foremost, swimming is not a sport that you can just ‘muscle through’. It requires a great deal of technical skill, timing, and rhythm to be efficient in the water. Swimming does not come naturally to most people and improving is not as simple as just ‘swimming more’. I always recommend having a professional swim coach analyze your stroke and provide guidance in improving your technical skills. Let’s look at a few of the basics that are necessary if you want to be successful in open water swimming.
Balance in swimming refers to your horizontal position in the water as well as your ability to rotate from side-to-side with control and consistency. Everything comes back to balance. The stroke, kick, breathing, and timing are all impacted by balance. Balance is impacted by the stroke, kick, breathing and timing. Welcome to swimming.
Your stroke is the primary source of propulsion when swimming, therefore it would be easy to assume that pulling harder would make you swim faster. This isn’t always the case. In fact, it is rarely the case unless you have first mastered balance, timing, and rhythm. There are five parts of the stroke that you need to be aware of. ‘The catch’ is the initial force you put against the water where you will get your arm into a position to generate forward propulsion. Ideally, this will result in a high elbow, near vertical forearm, from where you can activate your primary swimming muscles. ‘The pull’ is the power phase of the stroke where the arm continues to move backward while maintaining a high elbow with a considerable degree of bend. From here you transition to ‘hand exit’ by extending the arm down past the hip, in close to the body. The period of time where the arm is out of the water, or the ‘recovery’ phase, is key to setting up the stroke. Although there are many variations of a proper ‘recovery’, timing is everything here. Too quick and you will lose the connection in the core. Too slow and you will decelerate, or ‘over-glide’. The ‘recovery’ sets up the ‘hand entry’. I don’t think I need to explain what that is, but more importantly where it should go. Slightly overhead and in-line with the shoulder is most commonly taught. Like with the ‘recovery’, there are different variations of this, however, it is generally agreed that driving the hand and arm forward and not crossing the center line of the body is optimal.
Unless you are sprinting 50-meters, your kick should be an afterthought in terms of propulsion. Anyone who has pushed a board across a pool by just kicking can attest that it uses a tremendous amount of energy without producing much speed. For endurance swimming, the kick is much more important for balance and timing. Without getting into the 2, 4 or 6-beat kick discussion, most swim coaches would agree that a kick that does not create drag is a good kick. Keep the legs close together in a horizontal position. A soft bend in the knee is acceptable, however, the kick should come from the hips, not knee extension.
Breathing efficiently while swimming consists of a turning of the head, breath, and returning the head to a neutral position without affecting the balance of the stroke. This is easier said than done. Many swimmers want to ‘lift’ their head to breath rather than ‘turn’ their head to breath. By lifting the head and moving the chin away from the chest/shoulder they are creating an imbalance. To counter-act this the hips/legs drop, compromising the swimmer’s horizontal position. By ‘turning’ the head (like you’re shaking your head ‘NO’), you are able to maintain the horizontal balance while getting a breath. Breathing patterns are another debatable subject in swimming. Bilateral breathing, or breathing every three strokes, as opposed to single-side breathing, or breathing every two strokes is a subject better saved for another blog post. I will say that both parties have good arguments. There is more balance and symmetry when alternating sides while breathing on one side allows for more oxygen and better rhythm. I personally believe it is important to be able to do both and breath comfortably on both sides. Nonetheless, I find in race scenarios breathing every two strokes works best. When observing the greatest distance swimmers in the world, single-side breathing appears to be preferred.
Putting all of the above-mentioned skills together is like trying to land a remote control helicopter on the moon blindfolded. I mean it’s not easy. Again, I will go back to finding a professional coach who can assign appropriate drills to improve in swimming effectively. One thing I will mention about timing is that your core is your friend. The body should rotate together, as one. Imagine your body is a log. With the exception of your head, your shoulders, hips, and legs should rotate on the same axis together. From here you are able to generate more power while maintaining a streamlined position. To accomplish this, timing is critical.
Open Water Swimming Skills
Now that you are confident in your technique and are able to swim consistently for at least the distance you plan to race, there are a number of factors that the open water presents. Many of these factors will vary depending on the condition in which you are swimming, but we will try to cover the majority of them.
Navigation / Sighting
The first major difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in open water is that you don’t have that black line on the bottom to follow. ‘Navigation’ is our first hurdle. It doesn’t matter if you can swim 1:00/100yd if you can’t stay on course. In triathlon, the course is typically marked by brightly colored buoys. In order to see these buoys we have to ‘sight’. Sighting is a skill that can be practiced first in the pool. To do this you will lift your head up high enough for your eyes to break the surface of the water, then immediately turn with the breath. How high you must lift your eyes out of the water will depend a lot on the conditions of the water. In choppy conditions, you may need to lift your entire head out of the water and perhaps a few times before sighting the buoy. As we mentioned earlier, lifting the head impacts our balance. Therefore we want to be able to do this as efficiently as possible and as infrequently as possible. In this case, staying on course is a priority, therefore we must make the sacrifice in our technique. [Tip: If you breathe primarily to your right, try swimming on the left side of the pack and visa versa. If you breathe primarily to your left, try swimming on the right side. This way when you breathe you can keep an eye on the swimmers next to you. Make a note to see if they are sighting and if you are maintaining your distance from them. If so, you are likely staying on course and will have to sight less frequently.]
Another difference between open water swimming and swimming in a pool is that there aren’t lane lines separating you from the other swimmers. If you have shared a lane with a few people in the past you may have had an occasional bump, but in open water swimming, body contact is inevitable. You can simulate this in the pool before going out into open water. Recruit a few swimmers to practice contact with in the pool. Have one swimmer who’s goal is to maintain an efficient stroke while staying relaxed while the other swimmers take turns pushing, pulling and interrupting the stroke. In an open water scenario, the best way to deal with contact is by creating space. In most cases, contact occurs on accident as no swimmer wants to arm wrestle while trying to get through the water. Simply creating a little space can go a long way. If you are blocked on both sides, perhaps slowing up a touch and getting behind the culprit will save you a lot of energy. By practicing in the pool you will be prepared for this occurrence in open water and will be confident in how to deal with it. [Tip: Most contact occurs at the start of the swim and around the turn buoys. Lining up on the outside and taking wider turns around the buoy can provide you with ‘clean water’ to swim in and less contact.]
Entering / Exiting
How you get in and out of the water is another skill that depends largely on the conditions. This is where doing your recon work will pay off. Depending on the bottom conditions and the depth of the water, you may have areas where running or dolphin diving is faster than swimming. A good rule of thumb is if the water is below the knees then you can run. Slightly above the knees then dolphin diving is effective. Anything waist deep or more you should be swimming. Keep in mind that if the bottom conditions are unsafe then you will want to get swimming ASAP and not risk injury by stepping on a rock or glass. You might be wondering what dolphin diving is. Dolphin diving is an effective way to move through knee to waist deep water, faster than you could by just swimming. You start by pushing off the bottom with your feet and diving into the water and gliding underwater until you start to lose momentum. You repeat this process until you get into deeper water and begin swimming. Be careful not to overexert yourself in this skill. It should be smooth and efficient. Many athletes get carried away with this movement and elevate their heart rate too much. [Tip: When approaching swim exit, keep swimming until your hand makes contact with the bottom. From here you can either dolphin dive or run out of the water.]
Planning / Safety
Safety is priority #1. Be sure that you first have the ability to swim the necessary distance, you have practiced open water skills in the pool, and are swimming in a safe area. Here are some things to consider before getting in the water. Does the area you will be swimming have lifeguards? Is the area you will be swimming in accessible to boats or other crafts that could be a hazard? What is the tide doing (high/going out/low/coming in)? Is there a current? What are the water conditions? What is the visibility like? Is it choppy or flat? Will I have to deal with waves or rip-currents? What is the bottom conditions? Is it sandy, rocky, debris, etc.? What is the water temperature? Do I need a wet suit? What is weather conditions? How will that effect the swim? Who am I swimming with? What are their abilities? Will we be together? There are a lot more questions we could add to this list, but the point is to be thorough in your planning. Not only will this help to ensure safety, it will give you a sense of confidence, which is very important for open water swimming. One great piece of equipment to have with you in open water swimming is a swim buoy (not a pull buoy).
I work with athletes every year that have anxiety associated with open water swimming. This is understandable. However, before being able to help you overcoming this anxiety we must first know the cause. Figuring out what creates this anxiety. Are you not confident in your ability? Maybe you’re nervous that you won’t perform as well as others, therefore look foolish? Are you worried about what might be in the water (ie. critters)? Fear is something else. If you have a genuine fear of swimming in open water may I suggest talking with a professional in psychology.
I find that in many cases, by revisiting previous sections of this article, you can find the solution. Improving your technical ability, practicing open water skills in the pool, and having a safety plan can reduce the anxiety associated with open water swimming. Once you have accomplished these steps, experience in the water will continue to improve confidence and reduce the distress of open water swimming.