How To Avoid Something Called Drowning: Open Water Swim Techniques Part I

As warm weather sets in across the US, triathlons of all types are moving from the indoor pool to the lakes and oceans. And with that, the fears of thousands of first time triathletes sky rockets exponentially. Hopefully, the advice below will help you squash those fears like dropped packet of GU at the start line and stop you from imagining this:

Before I go any further, all you first timers reading this need to know 2 things about me. First, I’ve only been a triathlete for two years. So, you can take this advice as legitimately coming from someone who has been in the same wetsuit as you. Second, for 31 years, I was deathly afraid of deep water. Now with that out of the way…


PART I: Before Getting Wet:

One of the most important points of open water swimming is to admit to yourself that it IS
different than pool swimming. My first open water swim occurred in August of 2008 in Culpeper, Virginia. It was a sprint triathlon with a 750 meter swim in a lake. Before that day, I had never worn a wetsuit…ever. As a whitewater kayaker in my prior life, I had been in my fair share of rough water, but always with a helmet, a life preserver, and a kayak. In the days before the race, I just told myself “Ah, the only difference between a lake and a pool is one is chlorinated and has no fish. No big deal.” Good old denial; the most often used faulty defense mechanism this side of the universe.

I showed up on race day, and my bro helped me get the wetsuit on. I didn’t even know how to zip the thing up. After, I hopped in the muddy water, swam around for about a minute, and lined up in the middle of my wave.

What happened next was something I could only recently recount through expensive counseling and hypnosis. As soon as the gun went off, all hell broke loose. Arms and legs went flailing. Goggles went flying. Here’s what it sort of looked like:

I swam as hard as I could, trying to get out of the blender, but quicker than you can say “DNF” I was out of breath and gasping for air. In a few moments, I was the last one in the heat, barely treading water, barely swimming, stuck in the middle of a muddy pond with only God knows what swimming underneath me. Seriously though, without any exaggeration, this is the only time in my life when I truly thought I might die.

Long story short, I did not die, but I did finish dead last that day. The point to take from my disaster is that you must except that the first couple of open water swims are going to be tough and you have to prepare for them. The fact that your reading this is a good start/sign.

So what exactly is different between the water and the pool?

Visibility: Depending on things such as water type (lake vs pond vs ocean) and recent rain, the distance you will be able to see in the open water can vary from a few feet to a few inches. In any case, its going to be drastically different from the clarity of the pool unless your lucky enough to be swimming somewhere like Kona. The lack of long vision distance mainly effects your sense of direction. In addition you will not be able to see the bottom past 6-8 feet deep. This used to freak me out big time. I overcame this by telling myself that swimming in ten feet of water looks exactly the same as swimming 2000 feet of water. So once you can’t see the bottom, it doesn’t get any scarier looking.

No Line: You see that nice big line in the bottom of each lane at the lap pool? That usually doesn’t exist naturally at the bottom of lakes, not that you would be able to see it if it did. While it doesn’t seem like a big deal, this is one of those examples of not realizing what you have until its gone. Without the line or other makers to give you a visual reference, it is extremely easy to drift off course in no time. Most of us will cover a distance of 25 yards in 15-17 strokes. So, in 5-6 strokes, which is how long I go before needing to take a breath, you can get off course by a good 10 yards before you know it. In the following parts of this series, we will talk about how to stay on track.

Temperature: This is a big one. The pool is usually set at a mid to low 70’s. Outside, it can range from hot to freezing. When I swam Coeur d’Alene, it was roughly 65 degrees and that was cold. I did fine; but my hands and feet were numb by the end. For others though, it was too much. In places like Hawaii, the temp goes in the other direction. In either case, you need to be properly prepared for the expected water temp on race day. You don’t want to show up without a wetsuit in 65 degree water.

Creatures: This hasn’t been a problem for me, but I know for many its a serious one. Yes, there are going to be plenty of other things swimming around in the same lake/ocean your are. Fish, turtles, snakes…its really their territory. If you have fears of being eaten alive by sunfish, realize that the fish are going to be more freaked out about you and your two hundred friends thrashing around on the surface. In fact, I have never once seen a fish or other non-human lifeform during an open water swim. If your in the ocean, especially in Hawaii, things will be a little different as you will see plenty. Still, Nemo doesnt want anything to do with your splashing arms and legs. Unless of course Nemo is the name of a Great White Shark. In that case, you just don’t want to be the last one out of the water.

Bad Mother Nature: Unlike enclosed pools, open waters are subject to wind, currents, rain, and tides. During CDA, we were getting two foot swells and a heavy wind. Made for an exciting time navigating and breathing.

The Wetsuit: If you were like me and had never tried on a wetsuit, make sure you do it before showing up on race day. Whats the big deal? Wetsuits are tight. Really tight. So tight that moving arms and legs, which is kind of needed in swimming, is even harder. Even breathing is more difficult, and this fact is even more magnified when your racing. Scary as it may be though, there is one thing about a wetsuit that made all the difference for me in open water swimming. Wetsuits make you float. More on that later.

Are you freaked enough yet? Great, that’s the whole point. Everyone has heard the old adage the best offense is a good defense and this surely applies to OWS. The more prepared mentally and physically you are, the better things will go in those first few swims. Trust me, if this guy, the guy who wont kill a spider with anything less than ten feet in length, can swim in the open water, you can too! In Part II, well go over what to do when you first get in the water and taking your first baby swims. In the meantime, just keep swimming!

About Ironvan

From couch potato to Ironman triathlete in 2 years.

Posted on April 23, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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