How to conquer open-water swimming and race confidently

Tempted to tri but worried about the swim? Fear not, coach Martin Hill has these tips!

The swim start at Ironman Wales this year. Image: Getty

According to 220 reader research, it’s the open water swim that causes the most sleepless nights amongst tri newbies, so if this is your worry, then you’re not alone. There are things you can do to make yourself feel more comfortable though, ensuring you have a great first open water experience. 


We asked BTF Level 3 Triathlon and Swim Smooth-certified coach Martin Hill for his tips:

1. Open water is often a cause of anxiety. Try to identify and understand the cause first and then instead of worrying about it, be focussed on yourself and try to control yourself (eg your breathing and technique) instead.

2. Get in open water as early in the year as possible and get used to how it feels. Before even then, though, you can practice open water skills (such as sighting and drafting either behind or if you have space in a group) in the pool, so you have them ready once you get in the open water and they’ll feel more natural that way.

3. If the water is choppy, then a higher stroke rate and straighter arm recovery will really help. Even waters that looks calm when you arrive can get choppy with 200-plus people swimming in them!

4. Sighting is the most important skill that triathletes should learn but often don’t. If you fail to sight properly, you’ll go off course and end up covering more distance! Don’t rely on draughting someone else, either. How will you know if they have gone off course? Practise sighting in the pool – for example by sighting one length in every 100m, sighting every stroke.

5. Another good sighting trick is to look behind you, back to the start line, as well as ahead to the buoy. By doing this you can check you’re following a straight line and not ‘weaving’ towards the buoy.

6. Drafting takes practice and confidence and not everyone feels that comfortable being close to others in the water so if you’re nervous, stay further back and to the side out of the ‘washing machine’. If you can draft though, it can pay off – the highest figure I’ve seen quoted for energy saving is 40 per cent.

7. Have an awareness of the conditions where you will be swimming – for example if in the sea, find out what tides there are likely to be. Go online, look at a course map and familiarise yourself with the route. Then when you arrive, walk along the side of the sea/lake and visualise your race.

8. If your race is in a river, follow this simple rule: if against the current, swim on the outside. If with the current, swim in the middle, where the flow is fastest.

9. If you get someone drafting you, don’t get wound up – it will make you upset and tense and stop you having a relaxed swim. Take it as a compliment that someone wants to draft you!

10. Don’t let conditions on the day throw you. They will be what they will be! Prepare, but don’t worry. If there are waves, just try to dive into and under them. All the energy in a wave is on the top and that’s where you’ll be pushed back, so get under them and carry on.

Martin Hill runs swim and triathlon coaching weeks/weekends through his company Triathlon Training Spain. 220’s Editor spent a weekend training with him, read her report here and find out more about Martin here.


Does open water make you nervous, or do you prefer it to the pool? Tell us in the forum here!