9 open-water swim problems and how to put them right

Want to improve your open-water swimming? Glen Walker cites 9 common open-water swimming problems… and shows you how to overcome them


1. Swimming in circles 

If you’re in a lake, on a calm day, and you can’t keep in a straight line then it can only be the result of a defective stroke. Sorry, sounds harsh we know, but if there are no outside influences, it’s the only reason.


In the vast majority of cases the tendency is to swim off course in the opposite direction to your breathing side. That’s because most people lean on the arm that’s extended while they breathe (as it helps you feel balanced when in fact you’re not). For example, when you breathe to the left, your right arm presses down and your head comes off the central axis as you lift it to ensure a clean breath. Your extended arm usually stays quite straight while pressing down but then sweeps across the centreline as you turn to breathe – does all this sound familiar? – causing over rotation and further crossing of the centreline.

Now, as you’ll remember from your school days, Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Push water across your body in one direction and you’ll start
heading off in the other. Continue and you’ll end up swimming in circles. But fret not – it can be avoided…

Don’t lean on your extended arm when breathing. It’s easier said than done but should be much easier in a wetsuit when your arm is wrapped in buoyant neoprene.

Keep your fingertips pointing down during the underwater phase but don’t break at the wrist; keep your wrist firm and your hands soft. Your hands are not paddles; they’re sensitive. Soft hands allow you to feel the weight of the water and heavy water equals propulsion. If the water feels light then you’re slipping it and losing distance per stroke.

 Imagine that you’re swimming over a coral reef that’s approximately 30–50cm below you. Make sure your fingers are just above the coral and keep your elbows up.

Always keep the palms of your hands facing in the opposite direction to the one you’re travelling in.

Most open–water swim venues are located at water ski lakes where there are cables running below the surface to connect the buoys. Swim over the cables for a short while to establish a rhythm and stroke.

Then close your eyes for six to eight strokes (with your eyes closed your senses will be heightened) and see if you can feel yourself deviating from your intended course.

If you open your eyes and you’re still over the cable, you’re swimming straight. If not, you need to adjust your stroke accordingly. Now gradually increase the amount of stokes until you can stay straight for 20–plus strokes with your eyes closed.

2. Open-water swim anxieties

There are many reasons why you might be anxious in open water. You might not be used to the cold; tight neoprene is constricting your chest; only one metre visibility in any direction; or not being able to see the bottom. What about the fish – are there any pike? Unsure of putting your feet on the bottom – it feels horrible and has some moron thrown broken bottles in there?

The list is endless. You may read some of them and think they seem childish but they are real fears to many. My first big open–water swim was in Hawaii at the Ironman in ’83 – the year that Jaws 3D was released. All I could hear for the entire swim was that theme tune… It was my fastest swim ever. I’ve swum and dived in lakes, rivers and oceans a thousand times since, and have never seen anything even half as big as the people I’m swimming with. And as much as I tell myself that it’s completely safe, I still sometimes hear that music until I get going and start to enjoy swimming the way nature intended.

How to overcome your fears

Splash your face with water before getting in. Also, enter the water slowly so as not to cause a shortness of breath, which is then exaggerated by the fact that you’re wearing a wetsuit that’s restricting your diaphragm.

Don’t over breathe or breathe too deeply. This causes an oxygen-carbon dioxide imbalance and will make you feel light-headed.

Always swim with a friend. It’ll make you feel safer and, more importantly, there’s a 50% chance that the shark eats them first!

Swim in open-water as often as you can. The more you do it, the more experience you’ll gain and the more you’ll come to love it.

3. Getting out of the wetsuit efficiently in T1

There are three main options to solving any problems you have slipping out of your wetsuit. Firstly, cut the legs of your suit so that it finishes at your mid-calf. It makes the hole bigger and, therefore, easier to pull over your ankles and feet.

Secondly, unzip your suit and push it down to your waist as soon as you can. There’ll be water between your skin and the suit which acts like a lubricant – leave it too long and the water drains out and your suit sticks to your skin.

Finally, use a lubricant like BodyGlide on your legs and wrists. You could also put the lubricant on the outside of the suit between the elbow and the wrist, and below the knees. These areas turn inside out when you remove the suit and will slide past itself and your hands and feet easier with lube.

6 transition tips for exiting open-water

4. Fading in front crawl

So many people start off quickly and then disappear to the back of the pack. The secret is to maintain tempo, rhythm and pace awareness. In the pool you’ll have a clock, a coach (to yell at you) and visual cues such as the pool tiles on the bottom or the edge of the pool. You’ll also have other swimmers around you. Sadly, you only have to drop 10secs per 100m and you’ll be 2:30mins slower over a mile, or 6:15mins slower over an Ironman swim course.

It can take years to develop great pace awareness but there are now a few products on the market that can really help – the Tempo Trainer, PoolMate and the Wetronome, to name just three. However, before you rush out and buy one of them, you should first develop a consistent stroke length. If you can maintain stroke length and cadence then your speed will remain constant. Speed = stroke length x stroke rate. It really is that simple.

Your challenge is to find the perfect marriage of length and rate for your current technical ability and fitness level. It’s no different than finding the right gear on your bike. If you try to maintain a stroke length that’s too long, with a low stroke rate, you might look pretty but you’ll still be slow. If you stroke too quickly and ‘slip’ the water, you’ll still be slow but you’ll burn excessive energy by having to lift your arms against the neoprene too often – your shoulders will soon let you know.

There’s no universal swimming formula for this. It’ll take patience and time, but if you can develop a stroke length of at least 1m per stroke and then maintain a stroke rate of one stroke (hand hit) per second, you’ll be swimming at 1m per second. That’s 1,500m in 1,500 seconds, which is a 25min Olympic-distance swim – not too shabby for your average triathlete.

Now let’s say you improve your technique and can now cover 1.1m with every stroke (just 10cm further each stroke) and maintain a front-crawl stroke rate at one stroke per second. Now you’re covering the 1,500m in just over 22:40mins.

As your swim fitness improves you can also begin to stroke slightly faster, so now you can cover 1.1m every 0.95secs (just 5/100ths of a second faster for each hand hit)… You just swam the 1,500m in 21:34mins. Trim the rate by another 0.05secs and that’s a sub 20:30mins… You can now swim with the elites at Windsor next year.

Be honest: if your average 11-year-old club swimmer can swim a sub–20 without a wetsuit then any triathlete, male or female, should set themselves a minimum target of 25mins. It doesn’t have to be next week or even next month but why not next season or the one after that? It’s also a skill you’ll benefit from long after your knees refuse to carry you any longer.

Remember: it has nothing to with strength and fitness but everything to do with technique (distance per stroke) and rhythm (cadence). Get these right and you’ll drop seconds off your swim and leave your rivals in your wake.

5. Front crawl breathing

Bilateral breathing is a great way to practise swimming. Bilateral means breathing on alternate sides. For example, swapping sides on every third, fifth or seventh stroke; or breathing to the left on one length then to the right on the next (in a pool).

It helps you develop symmetry in your stroke and balance in the muscles you’re using. It’s also a useful skill to have when the waves are coming at you on your natural breathing side.

How important is bilateral breathing for beginner swimmers?

But – and this is a big but – why would you breathe every third stroke when you can breathe every two? If you watch the final of the Olympic 1,500m, you’ll see that almost all the swimmers are breathing every second stroke, because it’s an aerobic event. If you breathe bilaterally you’ll get 33% less opportunity to take in oxygen than someone that’s breathing on every other stroke.

Of course, it’s rarely as simple as this, but everyone should practise bilateral breathing but breathe unilaterally for races longer than 400m. This does assume, however, that your breathing doesn’t interrupt your flow and rhythm in the water.

How to improve your front crawl breathing

Improve your swim breathing in triathlon training

6.  Goggles misting up

When you’re in cold water and working hard, your eyeballs will warm up the air on the inside of your goggles, causing the air to condense (fog) where the lenses meets the cold water.

There are many products you can buy to prevent this but, personally, I’ve always had great results with good, old-fashioned spit – yep, spit. Sounds pretty horrible but just rinse your goggles in the water, shake them out as much as possible, then spit in the lenses and rub it around to coat all the surfaces.

Rinse them out again, giving them a good shake, and put them on immediately. Basically, spit works by putting a blemish-filling film over the surface of the lens.

Open-water goggles: how to choose the right lenses

Open-water swim goggles: 10 of the best reviewed and rated

7. Finding the wetsuit restrictive

Many triathletes would rather swim without a wetsuit, but it’s too bad – they’re here to stay. For the vast majority, they act like life preservers; they keep you warm and help you float if you get into trouble. More importantly, they’re also worth about 2mins per mile, even to the best swimmers out there, and considerably more to the balance-challenged.

How to swim in a wetsuit

By their very nature, wetsuits will be restrictive – they wouldn’t work if they were baggy. If you can swim pretty well and don’t feel the cold too much, then you could try a sleeveless wetsuit. Without the sleeves you won’t be forced to work against the neoprene during every recovery and this should slow the build-up of lactic acid in your shoulders.

A clear example is that if you watch the 1,500m at the Olympics, you won’t see any of them wearing a full-body suit. I remember Australia’s Grant Hackett trying it in trials for the Athens Olympics and saying that he felt his shoulders were going to explode after about 1,000m.

How can you tell if your wetsuit fits properly?

8. Getting dizzy after the open water swim

That fuzzy feeling you get once you reach dry land is simply because you’ve been lying down for the last half hour or so (that’s for Olympic distance – of course, that rises for middle-distance and long-course). During this time, blood has been directed to your upper body and, as soon as you stand up, the combination of gravity and using your legs draws the blood away from your head.

Your body will naturally compensate for this through several measures, one of which is for your heart to beat faster to balance the pressure drop. You can also help matters by using your legs a little more strenuously during the final 100-200m of the swim. This gets the blood flowing to your leg muscles and minimises the pressure differential that causes low blood pressure and dizziness.

Beat dizziness after the swim

9. Coping with the crowds

Many triathletes see their hopes drown at the start when they get caught up in the pack. The biggest contributing factor is the way in which people bunch up at the start. Everyone tries to get close to the start line, so you have all these people squeezed together, shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, and they’re all vertical in the water taking up about 2 sq ft. Then the gun/whistle/Klaxon goes and all hell breaks loose… Everyone now wants to get horizontal to swim and needs 10 times the space. The start resembles a sea-lion mating ritual with everyone climbing up the back of the person in front, who in turn gets stressed and tries to kick your teeth in (people can become aggressive when they think someone is trying to drown them!).

And it all could be so easily avoided. You just have to lie flat in the water with a gentle kick to hold your feet up and a light sculling action with your hands/arms to move you forward or back as required. This will give you space to start the swim in but, if you still feel apprehensive, then just move yourself to the left or right of the bunch or towards the back. Be careful about moving too far back, though, because there are plenty of swimmers who over estimate their ability and they’ll be in your way within a few hundred metres.

Open water swim: Crowd control tips

How to practise swim drafting

Practise with friends at the pool by packing yourselves into a lane and swimming a length of bunch sprints. Be rough with each other: swim up each other’s backs; swing your arms over their heads; push them into the swimmer on the other side… Get used to the contact and you’ll learn to cope.

Found this useful? Try…

Open-water swim technique: 11 common mistakes triathletes make

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