Tag Archives: open water swimming

Ocean Swimming in Triathlon

Ocean swim entry Carlsbad July 8, 2012Ocean swimming in triathlon can be intimidating, sure, but learning a few tricks and knowing what to expect in an ocean environment can help turn the experience into something not so bad. In fact, it can even be–dare I say–wonderful.

A triathlon open ocean swim is organic to the sport. After all, this is how triathlon was born—in the waters off the coast of San Diego, California. So at some point in your triathlon career, you really must put an ocean triathlon on your race schedule.

But if you’ve never swum in the ocean, the following tips might help.

Unlike when you swim in pools, lakes, and rivers, something you’ll notice immediately in the ocean is the vertical movement caused by tides, swells, and waves. This doesn’t necessarily have to affect your swim stroke, but preparing yourself mentally for this unique feeling is important. In calmer seas, the water will roll underneath you, almost like you’re being carried. The key is to stay relaxed and go with the flow. Keep your fingers loose during recovery and also on extension as your hand enters the water and moves forward.

This is not your normal surf entry! This wave and many others like it were caused by a tsunami that moved into Newport Beach in 2009 just in time for the Pacific Coast Triathlon. And no, we did not end up swimming. They changed it to a duathlon. . . .

This is not your normal surf entry! This wave and many others like it were caused by a tsunami that moved into Newport Beach in 2009 just in time for the Pacific Coast Triathlon. And no, we did not end up swimming. They changed it to a duathlon.

If the seas are not so calm—like if you’re swimming straight into wind chop—granted, it’s no fun, but the key is to keep from fighting the water. Remember,  your goal is to continue to slice through the water with a relaxed recovery, easy kicking, and executing an even roll of the head to breathe. Don’t try to swim “over” the chop or fight to stay above it. Let your entry arm angle in and slice through beneath the surface, just like always. For breathing in conditions like this, you might try looking backward and up a little to assist with a clearer breath. The visual for this is “breathing into your armpit.” That space is usually a good go-to place for a breath in rough water.

You’ll notice that you’ll ride higher in salt water than fresh water, so ocean swimming is great in terms of buoyancy. However, this also means you’ll have an unfamiliar taste in your mouth due to the salt. If you’re doing an ocean race, try to arrive at least the day before, so you can jump in the water ahead of time and get used to this new taste. If not, there’s usually room near the start on race morning to wade in and swim a little.

Open water swim start Carlsbad July 11, 2010Ocean currents are something you’ll definitely need to think about prior to race start. They often run parallel to shore, so if they’re moving the same direction as the swim course, you’ll need to factor this into your swim start position. If you’re swimming in California, for example, the swim course might take you through the surf to the first turn buoy and then make a right turn (north) and follow a parallel route along the shore. The current, very often, will be running that same direction (south to north). In this case, you’ll have to walk further south (away from the swim start) to begin your swim because the currents will be pushing you towards the turn buoy. If you start directly in front of the first buoy, there’s a good chance you’ll be pushed too far up course, and you’ll have to turn back and swim against the current in order to round the first buoy. If the race is large enough to have multiple waves of athletes, watch the groups that start ahead of you. See where they line up. Often, race directors will adjust the swim start position, too, to account for the strength of the current on the day.

Ocean swim entry Carlsbad July 8, 2012 with buoysAnother unique aspect of ocean swimming is the surf entry. Ocean swim courses are often set up like a rectangle. You’ll have to swim straight out to sea and through where the waves are breaking (the short leg of the rectangle), in order to get to smoother water on the other side (the long leg of the rectangle).

There are several ways to do a surf entry. I’ll start with the most basic and advance from there. The first, and most basic way to get through the surf, is to wade in, and when a wave approaches, turn sideways. Depending on the size of the wave, you might jump up, but you don’t have to for the smaller waves. You’ll be vertically oriented the whole time, like you are when you’re standing. The reason you turn sideways, rather than facing the wave with your torso, is to present a narrower cross section of your body to the wave. You’ll slip through much more easily this way. You can then continue walking and/or swimming and then jump/slide through the next wave.

The next method is to duck under the waves as the whitewater approaches. You’ll still be vertically oriented, but you’ll tuck your legs (squat) and duck your head underneath as the wave passes. You’ll want to grab onto the sand below you, if possible, to help hold you in place. Just know there’s a chance you’ll be pushed backwards by the waves because you’re still mostly upright when you do this.

The preferred method is to dive forward under the waves. As the whitewater approaches, dive just in front of the wave, grab a hold of the sand, and lay in a prone position on the bottom as the wave passes. You can then pull your feet underneath you and stand up.

swim4To take this to the next level, you can do something called dolphin diving. This is when you dive under a wave, hold onto the sand, pull your legs under you, and then spring upward and forward in an arc. You’ll be launching yourself directly into another dive under the next wave. This will end with you holding the sand on the bottom once more. Usually, three to five well-connected leaps can get you through the ocean break. This is, by far, the fastest method of entering the water through surf.

Take some time the day before your race to practice these techniques. You’ll feel much more comfortable with just a little preparation. And ultimately, it will help you to relax into the ocean environment and enjoy one of the best aspects of triathlon that the sport has to offer.

20 Calming Techniques for Open Water Swimming

Calm open water swimWe would probably trade our first born for an open water swim that looked like this.

Some swimmers actually get to experience conditions these, the ones leading the race, like an Andy Potts or a Lars Jorgenson, once they’ve broken away from the pack.



But for most of us, we scrum in this world:

Frenetic open water swim

It’s sort of not fair, is it?

But since this is our reality, let’s focus on ways to cope with the challenges we face in a mass open water swim. These tips are applicable to anyone, but I’m primarily focusing on those of you who are just trying to get through the swim, those with the goal of making it out of the water without a panic attack.

So without further ado . . .

1. When you first enter the water and duck your head under, give a good exhale, like really good. Make it long. “Empty” the lungs. This will ensure that the first breath you take when you surface is a deep one. When we get anxious, the breaths come shallow and fast, moving only “dead” air up and down the trachea—i.e., nothing happening at the cellular level in the alveoli where the oxygen transfer takes place.

2. Exhale adequately. Most breathing, and thus, anxiety problems are due to an inadequate exhale. Maintain a slow exhale through your mouth and/or nose when underwater, a light bubbling. Humming is a good way to remember to exhale. This also keeps the exhale at a slow rate instead of a too-forceful blast. Also, you want to hear the sound of air leaving your mouth and/or nose as you roll through the surface—i.e., don’t stop your exhale prior to clearing the surface.  This way, the subsequent inhale comes in automatically. If you are actively thinking about inhaling, then something is wrong with the exhale.

3. Swim with your mouth loosely open underwater. After inhaling with your mouth, there’s really no need to close it—it’s just an extra step. This will help relax the facial muscles, reducing fatigue and tension. When you clamp your mouth down hard underwater, puffing out your cheeks, you’re creating gobs of tension. You can bring your lips together slightly on the roll up to breathe to keep the water out of your throat. To learn about this in more detail, click here.

4.  Relax your recovery. So much extra tension is carried during the recovery phase of the stroke. The recovery phase is the part of the stroke where your hand exits the water after pulling to where it enters the water for the next stroke. Your forearm should literally hang from your elbow as the elbow moves forward. The forearm should be limp, the wrist limp, the fingers loose. To read more, click here.

5. Fingertip drag. This is a great way to practice a relaxed recovery. Let your fingers drag gently in the water as you swim to remind yourself to relax the recovery. You can do this in the pool in your workouts, but also, you can do this in the race, either when warming up beforehand or in the first several yards of the race. Keep it easy. Keep it gentle. More here.

6. Relax your extension. This is common—swimmers, crazy with rigidity, driving or spearing their arms forward when entering the water following recovery. The extension, just like the recovery, should be tension-free.

7. Pull your wet suit away from the neck to let water into the torso area. This might help relieve the pressure you feel of the suit against your chest. Do this just after getting in.

8. Don’t kick. Like literally. Especially when your goal is just to get out of the flippin’ water. When you’re in a wet suit, there is no need to kick. Let your legs float behind you. Usually, when I tell my swimmers not to kick, their legs still move, but in a very small way just for balance. You will save buckets of energy if you do this. I can’t tell you how many of my swimmers have found instant relief in this. You do not have to kick, no matter what anyone tells you. Other swimmers and coaches with competitive swimming backgrounds will swear up and down that you MUST kick. Well . . . you don’t.

9. Do 2-count breathing instead of 3-count breathing. Again, I hear this all the time, that you MUST do 3-count, or bilateral, breathing. No, you don’t. Two-count is perfectly acceptable and brings you to oxygen sooner. When we fall behind on our oxygen intake, we get tensed, anxious, and panicked, lifting our heads and flailing, and it’s often because we’re trying to stick to a 3-count breathing pattern. Yes, there are many advantages to 3-count breathing, but really, the need for oxygen and a relaxed, sustainable breathing pattern trumps everything. Read in more detail here.

10. Go with the flow of contact, meld with it. No matter how well you seed yourself, you’re going to have contact in the swim. If you your arms get whacked or someone swims over your legs or whatever, let your body be spaghetti, keep the arms turning until you’re clear. Never push back or “fight” the contact.

11. Know that breaks are allowed. You can rest vertically oriented, head up, as the wet suit floats so well, using no more than light scull. Or, you can rest on your back, take several composing breaths, and then be on your way. Or, if you’re really desperate, hang onto a kayak or raft. As long as you don’t make forward progress, it’s legal.

Tempo trainer12. Use a tempo trainer. These are little metronomes that you clip onto your goggle strap or tuck under your cap, and you can set them to beep at a specific stroke rate. When you use a tempo trainer for the purpose of helping you remain calm in the water, match the stroke rate on the tempo trainer with a relaxed, sustainable stroke rate you’d like to keep for your race. Concentrate on the beeps, the rhythmic nature of it, the steadiness of it. One arm entry for each beep. Tempo trainers are made by Finis, if you’re interested.

13. Utilize the practice swim time, if offered.  It depends on the venue, but sometimes set hours are offered to swim the course or part of the course in practice in the days leading up to the race. If it’s offered, take advantage. It’s a great way to get some of the race day jitters out ahead of time.

14. Arrive early. This should be a no-brainer, but arriving late is a huge stress inducer that leads to anxiety in the swim.

15. Practice in the open water. A given, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes to relax in an open water environment.

16. Practice in your wet suit. Do not be that guy who shows up to the race, un-worn wet suit in hand, price tag still attached. Similarly, even if you’ve owned a wet suit for a while, prior to a race, ensure you have swum in it recently. Often, we squeeze into this constricting, claustrophobic, choking piece of rubber on race day and it’s been months since the last time we’ve last worn it. Ugh. Whether in the pool or the open water, gaining time in your wet suit helps with relaxing come race day. I know wet suit companies say not to wear your suit in the pool, but just so you know, I’ve done it for years, carefully rinsing them after, and the suits have come out of it just fine.

17. Give yourself plenty of time to put on your wet suit. Sort of like arriving early, you want to start this process with enough lead time that you don’t feel rushed. Twenty-five to thirty minutes ahead of your race start is not too far in advance to be putting on your suit. If it’s hot, leave it rolled down at the waist, but at least have the legs on and everything pulled up high in the crotch (crass, I know, but it is what it is) so the suit doesn’t pull down unnecessarily on your shoulders once you have the top on.

18. Tread water gently, especially in a wet suit. This is applicable with deep water starts, where you need to float for a few minutes prior to swimming. So much energy is wasted here with unnecessary kicking and arm movements. If you’re in a wetsuit, you need only the gentlest of arm sculls to keep your head above water. To see what I mean, practice in water deeper than you can stand, take a breath, hold it, put your arms at your sides, keep your legs together (no movement) and practice bobbing. Be sure to notice, to internalize, that when your head drops below the surface, it pops right back up. Add a slow bubbling of air out of your nose and relax.

19. Stop when the starter says go. Yes, you’re rarin’ to go, you’re tapered, you’re rested, you are on. It’s easy to get carried away, starting way faster than you should, your oxygen needs quickly outpacing your oxygen supply. But if you’re trying to remain relaxed, attempting to get through the swim without panicking, you can afford to stay put, while everyone else takes off. Seed yourself well (in the back or to the sides) so you don’t get run over, wait for the gun to go off, then hang out until some space clears, and you can be on your way.

20. Be where you are. Sounds like a Bruce Lee quote, right? But hear me out. Rather than finding yourself in the middle of a swim and thinking, “Holy crap! I’m in the freaking middle of a BIG freaking lake, with no bottom, no sides, nothing to hold on to, *!$@!,” shift your thinking to where you are, to the two or three feet in your immediate vicinity. Think about a technique item, a relaxed recovery, an easy entry, loose fingers, focus on a good exhale, count the number of strokes between sighting for the next buoy. You want to get to a place mentally where it feels like you’re swimming on a treadmill, happy with where you are, not desperate to get somewhere else.

By employing some of the suggestions above, you just might find yourself using the words open water swimming and enjoyable in the same sentence. Now, wouldn’t that be something?