For new triathletes, open water swimming can be one of the most intimidating parts of a race. With so many variables, being in the water rather than on land, and the need to maneuver around people and in the right direction of the buoys, it can feel like a pool is far from good enough to prepare. Whether you’re farther away from water or it’s simply too cold to swim outside, here are some tips to prepare for OWS in a pool! As someone who showed up to their first triathlon in a swimsuit and shorts, entirely unprepared for open water, and spending my whole swim managing shortness of breath from the elements, I want you to avoid the mistakes that I made.
Tips To Prepare For OWS In A Pool
Assess the Swim Course Ahead of Time
Heading into open water can be a shock to the system, so the first thing to prepare isn’t even in the pool- it’s online! I highly recommend going to the website of your triathlon and looking at the course guide in order to see if you’ll be starting by running into the water, jumping from an elevated surface (dock, boat, etc), or starting in the water itself. Understanding the body of water you are swimming in includes several pieces of information:
- The average temperature at the time of your race
- Saltwater or freshwater
- Waves or currents
- Where will the sun be (see Gear Prep)
- Is the race wetsuit legal
If you can’t find this information on the race website, the best option is to either reach out to the race director/company or to find people on social media, whether the race has an event Facebook page or you find a hashtag for the race and message some previous participants. I am always more than happy to help if someone reaches out to me about a race I’ve done before, and I’ve found most people are open to sharing their experience and tips!
Preparing For The Water
When you’re in the pool, the air is warm and the temperature isn’t as tough to get used to, but open water can be surprisingly cold! However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to get your body used to those sensations. A tip that works especially well for folks with breathing issues and anxiety is prior to entering the water to splash some on your wrists and neck- these areas will sensitize you more fluidly into the swim. Try to get to the race early to do this, and make this a habit as you enter the pool for workouts.
Open water swimming has different gear than pool swimming, but not entirely different. The two main differences are the optimal type of goggles and wearing a wetsuit, if you choose to do so. One of the most popular mantras in triathlon is “nothing new on race day” (this very much confused my competitive swimming upbringing, where a brand-new suit is ideal for your A-race) so testing out the goggles and suit you want to wear to your race in the pool is a must. Pool goggles fit into your eye sockets, open water goggles have a larger eyepiece in order to increase your field of vision for sighting (see pool drill for OWS prep).
Understanding your race is also critical to whether you decide on clear or mirrored goggle lenses- I personally wear mirrored lenses for everything since it prevents glare and at my aforementioned first triathlon, I was using pool goggles and the sun was in my eyes far more than I anticipated. My personal recommendation as far as suits is to wear your triathlon suit in the pool once or twice to see how it is in the water, and for a wetsuit to find a way to try the suit a day or two before the race- lots of races have the ability beforehand to do a practice swim for this very reason.
One of the main differences in swim technique between pool racing and open water racing is the need to sight. Sighting is exactly what it sounds like- checking your surroundings to ensure you’re on course, on the correct side of the buoys, and that there aren’t any obstacles in your way. Sighting is counterintuitive in pool swimming. In competitive swimming you avoid raising your head to see. In triathlon, sighting is very important and knowing where you’re going will help you avoid swimming longer. It is possible to practice sighting in the pool and like me you can turn a weakness into a strength. My favorite drill is Tarzan, where you keep your head above water and swim with as much force from your arms as possible. The drill is good practice for positioning and how to maneuver your body while sighting.
Pool Drills For OWS Prep
There are other drills that can help for open water swimming that focus on stroke and preparation for a different terrain.
- Start swimming from the middle of the lane. This drill helps you to build momentum without pushing off the wall. You can do this in various segments. For example, start in the middle and swim to the wall and back. You can start again or continue to the other wall and back. The purpose is to get started in the same way as an open water swim.
- Practice sculling or treading in the deep end since it’s not possible to touch the bottom during a race.
- Practice flipping to your back and then back over. To do this, you will swim several strokes and flip to your back for a couple seconds. After a few seconds, flip back over to freestyle. Doing this will create muscle memory for when you’re tired or overwhelmed.
Remember That You Are Safe!
The fear with open water comes from the fear of the unknown. You may have a fear of going under but remember that every race will have safety protocols for their swimmers! There are volunteers in kayaks who can come to you if you need assistance. Do not be embarrassed about hanging on to the kayak, the other athletes are focused on their own race. Your safety is why the volunteers are there!
Swimming is an activity and sport that has room for everyone. We hope that these tips to prepare for OWS in a pool are helpful.