Chrissie Wellington’s Guide to the Open Water: Pt 1/5

Part one of Chrissie's Guide to the Open Water focuses on preparation


Issue ID: June 2012


For many aspiring triathletes, the swim poses one of the biggest challenges. Fortunately for you, four-time World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington is on hand to provide an exhaustive guide to the open water. In the first of a five-part series, Chrissie talks race prep

My first race in 2006 was the National Sprint Championships in Redditch. I borrowed a wetsuit. It didn’t fit. I got in the 14°C water. The gun went off. My wetsuit flooded. I couldn’t get my arms out of the water, let alone swim, and had to be rescued by a kayaker.

Not the most auspicious start to an age-group triathlon career. So when 220 asked me to pen a definitive guide to open-water swimming, I was somewhat hesitant. Surely there are better people for the job, I asked? Like the orange lifeguard training dummy that generally lies at the bottom of the pool? Such claims fell on water-filled deaf ears.

So here you have it. This guide is a compilation of material from a wide variety of sources (many a lot more experienced than I, such as my coach, Dave Scott). Some of the information I gleaned through personal trial-and-many-an-error, with the gaps filled through extensive reading and researching. So, whether a novice, intermediate or advanced swimmer, I hope the following information provides you with top tips for coming out of the open water faster than you can say Michael Phelps, or at least ‘swim cut-off time’.


The open water can be a scary experience. There’s no black stripe to follow and no side/lane rope to hang onto. Aquatic creatures lurk beneath, two-legged creatures flail around you, the water can be choppy, it can be cold, it can be full of floating detritus. Yet open-water swimming can be a wonderfully liberating, fulfilling and enjoyable activity. And even if it isn’t, it usually forms the first part of a triathlon race, so if you want to get onto the bike you’ll need to be able to get through it!

You have to feel comfortable in open water before you can really enjoy it. And to feel comfortable, you have to understand both the water, yourself, and be confident that you can handle both the expected and the unexpected.


Before entering a race, beginners should ask themselves the following questions: in the pool, do I grab the wall at each turn to get some rest or a little more breath? Can I stay afloat while coughing after swallowing a mouthful of water, or do I hang onto the lane rope? Can I keep swimming when I get a side stitch, calf or foot cramp? Have I managed to swim the entire race distance in training without collapsing in a heap? Can I swim underwater/with my eyes closed for a few seconds without feeling claustrophobic?

Think carefully about your answers, and if you’re not confident in your ability to cope then maybe you should spend a little more time in the pool before you embark on your first race. If you’ve never swum a race in open water before, I suggest entering a sprint triathlon with more predictable conditions: a rowing lake such as the one at Dorney is ideal, or a river/canal swim with no/limited currents. This will help build your experience and your confidence. Ocean swims, with waves, currents and tides, can pose problems and may not be the best option for a novice.

Obviously front crawl is the quickest way of getting from A to B, but doing front crawl is never compulsory. You can do breaststroke, backstroke or even doggy paddle, as long as you make the cut-off time. But don’t go into a race with the attitude that someone will be there to bail you out in times of trouble. Yes, safety personnel are always on hand, but it’s your responsibility to ensure you can complete the swim safely and under your own steam.

As with anything, practice really does make perfect. As obvious as this may sound, the best way to get used to swimming in open water is to swim in open water, both in training and by gaining experience in races. If you have a chance to train in the open water, take advantage of it. For safety, it’s always a good idea to swim with others.


If you can’t practise in open water, don’t worry. This guide, over the next couple of weeks will give you tips for developing the skills that you’ll need to be able to perform on race day. Enjoy the water!