How to swim in open water for the first time and prepare for race day

Swimming in open water, never mind racing and coping with a pack, can be daunting. Six time Ironman world champion Dave Scott explains how to get used to the conditions, and not let the nerves get the better of you


If you haven’t been in open water before it can look intimidating. But whether it’s an ocean, a river or a lake, water is just water. That might sound simplistic, but all it means is that the underlying skillset for swimming is the same wherever you are. Once you realise that, things get a lot less stressful.


A few training sessions in open water before your race will help you get used to the different swimming environment and calm any nerves. When you first arrive at your open-water training venue, take some time to look at the water and calm yourself. Remember that, although it may look different, it’s still just water and swimming is swimming whether it’s in a pool or somewhere else. Get in the water slowly so you can get used to the temperature and any currents. Swim the first few strokes slowly and methodically, and exaggerate your breathing so you’re turning a little further and looking at the sky. Seeing the sky can be quite calming and if you’re in a race getting jostled around, it’s a good way to settle jitters.

Focus on your breathing during these training sessions as you want it to feel totally natural come race day. You should be able to inhale through your nose and mouth, and feel your diaphragm moving. Don’t rush your inhalations, which can often be the tendency in open water. If you’re feeling panicky, taking short, shallow breaths isn’t going to help you.

It’s also worthwhile doing a few strokes of breaststroke. This will give you a chance to look around and get your bearings – focussing on where you’re going rather than what’s going on around you is calming and comforting.

You could also do a little backstroke in your open-water training sessions. It opens your shoulders and your chest out and, again, lets you look at the sky, which is calming – especially if the murkiness of the water makes you nervous. It’s all about taking small steps to get used to your environment.

A lot of beginners starting off in open water always swim slow so I like to apply a little speed in those initial sessions, adding a little tempo to your stroke as you would in the pool. You can’t think in terms of 25m or 50m lengths when measuring your tempo in open water, so think in time instead – break it down into 25secs or 30secs of swimming, for example, and do a set of eight repeats, giving yourself a certain amount of time to complete them.

Alternate 30secs on and 30secs off, bringing up your tempo a little so you get used to the breathing pattern at the higher tempo. You might get a few waves interrupting your breathing but it’s all good practice for the conditions you might encounter in a race.


Finally, let’s talk about the last 50m of your open-water leg, when you’re coming in and you can see dry land. This is also somewhere anxiety can rise so take those methodical strokes and big breaths again to calm yourself before you get into T1.

You could also do a few strokes of breaststroke as you approach the end of the swim too – not only is it calming, but think about how your ankle moves in breaststroke: it’s repeatedly dorsiflexed, pointing your foot up towards your shin and stretching your calf. Swimming freestyle in a wetsuit you don’t move your legs much and your foot is plantar flexed, pointing along the line of your leg, so your calves and hamstrings can get pretty tight. A few breaststrokes at the end allows you to stretch the muscles of your leg and foot before you jump on your bike.

I’m a big fan of breaststroke. In 1982 in Hawaii I came up to the swim exit too abruptly and got a huge cramp in my hamstring that followed me through the race. I could have avoided it with a little breaststroke! It’s fine to lose a few seconds at the end of the swim by calming yourself down, throwing in some easier freestyle strokes, doing some breaststroke and a little backstroke (if the race rules allow) to stretch out your pecs and shoulders. Then you can come out of the water and arrive at T1 feeling focused and relaxed and ready for the rest of your race.

6 transition tips for exiting open-water

Dave Scott is the first 6x IRONMAN World Champion and a Master Coach of IRONMAN U.  As the founder of the Dave Scott Multisport Institute, he dedicates himself to making triathletes of all levels faster and more efficient.  Learn more at



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