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10 tips for improving your open-water swim
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How to improve your open-water swimming in triathlons

Matt Sanderson, co-founder of Triathlon Coaching UK, explains how to improve your open-water swimming in 10 easy steps

For some, the first thoughts of performing well in open-water are when they are already in the dark waters of a lake. My advice is to start your preparations for every open-water swim from dry land, before you enter the water says Matt Sanderson, co-founder of Triathlon Coaching UK 

1. Mental preparation

Many an open-water swim has been ruined by an athlete rushing into the water without thinking about the environment they are about to enter. Take some deep breaths and map out your route around the course you are going to swim. Mentally break the course up into distances between buoys and then equate that into the number of lengths of a pool to give you an easier understanding of the actual distance. Now think how you would approach that swim if it were in a pool. Use this time to take in some deep breaths and positive visualisations of swimming with relaxed and effective technique. 

8 ways to beat open water nerves


Once you have calmed your thoughts spend a couple of minutes thinking how you might deal with other less predictable scenarios should they arise. For example: How will I react should I take on water and struggle to get my breath? 

In your mind you tell yourself you will simply relax your breathing, slow your stroke rate and re-find your rhythm again and that within no time you will be relaxed and comfortable again. 

While thinking of less comfortable scenarios might make you feel a little uneasy it is good practice to find an answer to each as you can then draw from that should you ever experience it. Just make sure you finish your mental preparation with positive thoughts!

2. Physical preparation

 Take time to get your suit on correctly and high enough so not to hinder range of movement especially around the shoulders. The suit should fit snug in the crotch with no rolls around the back of the knees. Get the legs right before starting on the upper body. Once the suit is on you are ready for another dynamic warm up.

What to look for in a tri wetsuit

Now is time again to mobilise the joints, raise the heart rate and physically prepare the body for exertion. Don’t go into the water with a low heart rate and then expect to feel good when the heart rate jumps 50-60 beats in the next two minutes! Perform 10 squats, 10 arm swims, 10 spinal rotations, 10 knee hugs (5 each leg) a couple of times through before entering the water especially before a race start - even if you plan to just ease your way into the swim.

3 Be ready for cold, dark water!

Unless you are swimming in places like Bussleton for IM Western Australia where you might see an octopus or two sat, watching your swim from the sea bed, the water you are swimming in will most likely be a dark green colour, colder than the pool you’ve been used to and you will be lucky to see your own hand in-front of your face. This is reality and the sooner you convince your brain that this is normal the better. Always try to get in the water prior to the race start and get your face in the water and slowly exhale into the water to help relax you and prepare you. 

For many new OW swimmers there is a tendency to hold onto the breath underwater which can lead to hyperventilation and anxiety. Focus on breathing out when your head is in the water - practice this with the ‘breathe, bubble, bubble, breathe’ drill where you audibly say the words ‘bubble, bubble' on each stroke before taking a breath in on the third stroke. This encourages you to exhale in a relaxed manor allowing you to focus only on breathing in when turning to breathe.

Once in the water there are a number of key skills to develop to make your open-water swim both effective and enjoyable:

4. Swim straight lines

Focus on swimming straight lines more than swimming fast. With a wetsuit to help your buoyancy swimming should be quicker and less effort for most AG triathletes. Unfortunately many triathletes have poor navigation skills and often, once they study their Garmin file, they find they swam 10% further than they needed.  To help with this you should focus on breaking the swim down and swimming from one buoy to the next rather than looking too far ahead. You can also improve your ability to swim straight lines with the following point…

Continue reading our guide for improving your open-water swim (2/2 tips 5-10)


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