Swimming back and forth along a black line can get boring. Lake and ocean swimming, on the other hand, is filled with endless adventure. Although it can make your time in the water more enjoyable, many people are still hesitant to try open water swimming. Some fear the creatures of the deep, others the unchlorinated water itself. And still others fear the great unknown lying before them, seemingly impossible to conquer.
There’s no way to eliminate your obstacles – the sea will still be wide and the fish will still be swimming. But with the right equipment, effective planning and plenty of practice, your unease will become little to none. Whether you’re training for a triathlon or just looking for a fun way to get fit, read on for my best advice for the aspiring open water swimmer.
What You Need
1. A Cap and Goggles
Just as you would in a lap pool, you need a good cap and pair of goggles to swim in the open water. But for the best results, I recommend a few tweaks from the normal. For your cap, I suggest wearing a bright or fluorescent colored one. This is an important precaution to take to make you more visible to passing boats.
As for your goggles, you can’t go wrong with a mirrored pair. The impact of the sun is greater than you would expect, blocking your vision with an irritating glare. To combat this, try mirrored goggles that lessen the sun’s intensity. They are also useful for seeing large buoys up in the distance for sighting.
2. A Swim Suit
As long as there is good weather and the temperature of the water is high enough, almost any suit will do. But if it is often cold where you live and the water temperature is below 70⁰F, I suggest investing in a wetsuit. If possible, find a wetsuit that is firm fitting as well as flexible in the shoulders. Shoulder mobility is of the utmost importance when swimming for long periods of time, as your arms can get exhausted from any restriction.
3. A Lubricant
As you can probably imagine, the likelihood of chafing is high when your suit rubs against your skin for long periods of time (especially with wetsuits). To avoid this, add some kind of lubricant to the trouble areas before hopping in the water. Rubbing Vaseline around your suit straps is very popular. If you want something a little less sticky, try TriSlide Anti-Chafe Spray. It’s important to lube around your shoulders, upper back and anywhere else you notice painful rubbing.
4. A Safety Partner
Because you will have to stay low in the water while swimming, it is hard for passing boats and jet skis to see you. But if you have a friend in a kayak nearby, other water vehicles will take precautions around your area, making you much safer in open waters.
Also, your kayaking partner can guide you when you aren’t sure where you are. The bright color of the kayak makes it an excellent sighting object, allowing you to simply follow the leader instead of trying to find your way alone.
*Quick Tip: For added visibility, have your safety partner wear a fluorescent shirt or hat.
Since there are no lines at the bottom of the lake to guide you, you have to lift your head every now and then to check that you’re going the right way. This is called sighting. Although it may seem simple, there are special techniques for raising your head out of the water. The best way to keep your pace and avoid ruining your form is to use one of your breaths to breathe forward. After a breath and a quick look ahead, you can either bring your head back down to neutral or turn to a side breath. Practicing this strategy will help reduce neck pain and keep your natural flow in the water.
When you look forward, look for a large and obvious object to aim for. If you have a kayaker with you, this is a perfect sighting object, since it stands out from your surroundings and is always along your desired path. If not, find a unique landmark that you can shoot for. Make sure to choose a sighting object and stick to it. Otherwise, you may not end up at the location you planned for.
Arguably one of the most important techniques for competitive open water swimmers is drafting. But this method isn’t only for competitions. Using this strategy during practices can make your swim much easier! Just like biking and running, swimming in someone else’s wake helps you swim faster with less effort. If you have a friend to swim with, practice drafting off of each other, leading until you are tired, then swimming in their draft to catch your breath.
7. Changing Speeds
Open water swimming, especially at the competitive level, is not really about holding one constant speed throughout the race. Based on your circumstances, you will need to either speed up or slow down. At the start, end and times you start falling behind, you have to increase your speed. When you need to draft and stay with a group, you can slow down.
When training, whether on your own or in a group, practice switching speeds often. Keep a constant pace for a while, then do a thirty second sprint. Keep rotating between speeds to get your body used to being out of its comfort zone.
8. Start Small and Build Up
Swimming in a lake or ocean can be much different than pool swimming. Since there are no walls, your arms will get tired much quicker. The moment’s rest of a turn will no longer be there to give your arms a much needed break. Because of this, you should start your open water training small, then build up slowly as you get the hang of it. Your body will slowly acclimate to the activity, just as it did when you began swimming in the pool. Before starting your swim each day, decide what you are capable of doing and plan a route that doesn’t exceed your ability. This way you can be sure you are doing the right amount.
Open water swimming isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s no manicured pool to swim in with unchanging conditions. There are cool temperatures, passing objects, and much longer distances. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With the right equipment, anyone can master the open water. And once you learn the techniques, you can find enjoyment in a practically endless pool.