Introduction to Open-Water (Part 1)

After the safety and comfort of the pool, swimming in open water can be daunting. But have no fear because Andrew Potter is here to help you prepare…


The open-water swim leg of a triathlon is usually the most intimidating element for any new athlete to the sport. Even experienced pool swimmers can find open-water swimming introduces challenges that are well beyond their experience and, as a result, they perform below their potential. Once mastered, open-water swimming to pool swimming is like comparing trail running to track sessions, and a time to enjoy being in the outdoors rather than in a chlorinated indoor pool.


The objective of this feature is to ensure you maximise your open-water experience – not only for newcomers to triathlon but also for experienced racers.

Mental approach

Cold water, lack of visibility, waves, current, no rests at the end of the pool, no lane discipline with arms everywhere, not to mention marine life and depth… It shouldn’t be that difficult, should it?

Often, people become anxious with new and uncomfortable activities, and it’s quite common to feel panicky in open water. But an athlete who is anxious and tight in the water is a slow athlete, so we need to take ourselves up this ‘comfort scale’ to perform better and reach our potential.

In the pool we’re largely focused on our stroke and the bottom of the pool. In colder open water we’re distracted by the chill, we have no reference points and visibility is poor. Our mind can play games and wander away from our swimming technique due to the external factors and environment. Panic or at least distraction creeps in very easily unless we have prepared ourselves – so understanding the elements that increase your own particular level of anxiety or discomfort is the key to swimming better.

Physical anxiety

The first element of increasing our comfort level is to ensure our physical comfort. In the UK our races are usually in waters that are relatively cold, and certainly colder than the pool you may be used to. The British Triathlon Association’s (BTA) rules set out the conditions for wetsuit-only swims based on water temperature (see for more). So first up, ensure you have a wetsuit and that it fits you.

There’s a variety of suits to choose from (see last issue for more), but the critical thing is to ensure that it’s a good fit all over – especially the lower back and the neck seal. To guarantee comfort over a long, continuous swim, it’s always advisable to apply lubrication to areas where chafing could occur. Use one of the special products that do not affect neoprene, such as Bodyglide,
and apply around the neck and under the arms.

In addition to keeping the body warm, we need to think about the head and in particular the ears. Cold water robs the body of warmth 32 times faster than cold air, and it’s quite common to see people come out of the water at a race looking drunk. This is often due to the fact that the head and the inner ear have become cold, which affects balance. So make sure you wear a decent swim hat. If possible, swim with two hats (latex ones are thicker and warmer) and ensure they cover your ears. In very cold water, some swimmers use earplugs and even neoprene hats – these can be very effective, but again it’s what suits you.

Our next piece of equipment is goggles. Unlike the pool, sighting and visual awareness is crucial, not only in racing but also to alleviate mental fears. Quite often we hear of swimmers feeling claustrophobic in open water – this may be due in part to not being used to a tight-fitting wetsuit, but also it can be caused by not being able to see very much. So don’t use worn-out, scratched or old goggles that fog. Opt for larger types like the Aqua Sphere Seals or Zoggs Predators.

Safety and well-being

When training in open water, safety is paramount. Before leaving the shore, make sure you have thought about what to do if something doesn’t go to plan. Largely it’s common sense: swim with a buddy; let someone on shore know your plans; stay a safe distance from shore; swim along the beach, not out to sea; and always wear a brightly coloured cap that can be seen. In some areas of the UK, there are specially supervised lake sessions that you can take part in – again, a great way to practise safely.

No matter what the temperature, you’re safer in a wetsuit than without because they provide a fair amount of flotation, so if, for example, you do get cramp it’s simply a matter of rolling on your back, stretching out and calming down.

Health considerations

It should be mentioned at this point that there are some health hazards when swimming in lakes, rivers and confined waterways. The most widely recognised one is Weils disease (Leptospirosis), a bacterial disease associated mainly with rats. The risks of catching it are quite low, providing you don’t swim in polluted water, and take the basic precautions of ensuring any cuts are covered. Also, showering straight after swimming is a must.

Cold-water shock

When plunging into cold water, the body reacts with ‘cold-water shock’. This is something that must be respected, so it’s a good idea to ease your way in steadily and allow your body to adapt rather than have a shock reaction. If you do have any kind of medical condition that could be affected by sudden shock, seek out expert advice before plunging into any cold water.

The process of jumping into cold water makes us tense up, resulting in very shallow breathing, so entering the water gradually is essential. However, once over the initial immersion, many new open-water swimmers then struggle to put their face in cold water. Again, this needs to be done gradually to build confidence. (Some of the larger open-water swim masks can help beginners as more of the face is covered. You may find this aids confidence levels.)

Once in the water we need to allow ourselves some time to overcome the shallow breathing reaction to the cold. So it’s a good idea to adopt a warm-up or acclimatisation routine that can be practised in training and also used in the warm time prior to a swim start. Typically, it should involve some easy swimming, working solely on breathing exhalation and rhythm to counter the body’s reaction.

Try to swim with a breathing pattern of three, four and even six strokes per breath for around 3-5mins. Then roll over on your back and take some large, controlled breaths. The next part of any warm-up will focus on your stroke. We’d suggest some basic drills, followed by a series of short, increasing-pace swims of 20-30secs, focusing on stroke length and breathing. Finish with around 2-3mins of steady, recovery swimming and stretching.

Prolonged swimming in cold water has different effects on different swimmers, and the length of time you swim for will depend on your own physiology. That said, we can of course develop some acclimatisation to the cold by swimming more often in open water and becoming more and more used to the conditions. Note: when swimming early in the season, keep the sessions relatively short until your body has adapted and the water temperature has begun to rise (in late May).

Fear of the unknown

Familiarity is also a way of reducing your anxiety levels so regular training in open water is a must. Of course, when you arrive somewhere new for a race, you may be back in the anxious zone because the venue will be unfamiliar territory. Expanding your experience will help build confidence, so think about varying your training location to confront different challenges, rather than practising at the same venue all the time.

For the novice, it’s a good idea to start in a controlled lake environment and then, as the confidence builds, progress to larger lakes and sea swims – this should increase your levels of comfort through progression.

With this sort of preparation, when you arrive at a race you’ll have a positive mindset. If you’re at a new race venue, try and swim prior to the race. You should at least swim prior to the race start, using your warm-up routine to increase your familiarity with that particular patch of water. The more you decrease the mental unknowns, the better your swim will be.

Okay, that’s enough for now. In Part 2, we’ll give you the stroke skills and sighting advice to cruise through any body of open water.

Andrew Potter is a BTA-qualified coach who specialises in open-water swimming

Your goggle of choice

Choose a pair of goggles or swim mask that fits. To ensure a good seal, gently press the goggles/mask to the face without the strap. If you can look down and they stay on through suction alone, then they’re likely to remain leak free.

Don’t use goggles with small sockets for open water because they’ll inhibit your vision.

If you find sighting difficult or have a claustrophobic tendency when in open water, try an open-water swim mask. Again, ensure the mask is a good fit because if they leak, you end up with a lot of water in there.

Once you’ve found a type you’re happy with, buy a second, back-up pair and take them with you to your races. Also, consider buying a smoked or tinted pair for swimming in very sunny conditions – but don’t use these in dull conditions.

Don’t use old goggles – they will fog up. 

When in the water, a little spit goes a long way to help keeping the lens from fogging – although most decent types have an anti-fog coating.

Straps under the hat or over? Pro for under: goggles more protected. Con: if you do get knocked, they may be harder to adjust. Personally, I have them over so I can reposition them more easily.