Open water swim: Crowd control tips

It’s all too easy to panic when you’re in the middle of the open-water mêlée. The answer? Assertive orientation. Jodie Cunnama explains


We all know that a good swim sets you up for an assertive race. It leaves the others playing catch-up and allows you to dictate the type of race that evolves. Because of this you regularly turn up at the pool. You plough through the metres, you log each 100m and develop better technique… but somehow it just doesn’t convert to the open water, when you’re confronted with a thrashing pack.


Sound familiar? Don’t worry. I’m here to show you how to gain confidence and assertiveness when the going gets rough. Here are five of the most common open-swim worries, and how to cope with them…

1 Foreign waters

Swimming in open water is completely different from swimming in a pool. The taste, smell and viscosity of the water is different everywhere you go, and the alien experience is off-putting come race day. So to get used to variable and crowded waters, here are a few pointers…
Swim while you’re on holiday. The sea is by far the least predictable of waters so orientating yourself in it is challenging. Practising things like body surfing will get you confident in deep, wild water.

Find a group that swim in open water every week. Practising in a group will not only ease you into the large expanse of water, it’s also safer and you’ll learn how to swim with others around you.

Swim in public pools with no ropes and lots of people. Lane swimming is good for practising technique and clocking up the kilometres, but in among the general public you can really practise your assertive orientation (see box below). Soon you will begin to understand how skills such as sculling and sighting can be incorporated into pack swimming.

2 Getting Hit

Swimming in a group can be rough and uncomfortable. Hopefully, assertive orientation will help you control your position, but you could still get clobbered. In general, if you’re among weaker swimmers you’ll get hit more. This is because they lack the orientation skills needed in the mêlée.

Getting hit is always going to be annoying but if it happens, forgive it – it’s very rare that people hit or duck you on purpose! Breathe, cough, swear, but then move on and concentrate on pushing through the pack. Forget retaliation: being hit slows you down but hitting someone intentionally slows you down even more. If you’re constantly being hit by someone next to you, drop onto their feet and draft off them. It will save you the clobbering and make your swim far easier.

You can improve your own pack-swimming technique, meanwhile, during training. Try swimming three in a lane and working in conjunction to go faster. Sit on each other’s feet but try not to touch anybody at any time. By training like this, you learn to respect the rules of the water and to identify when and why others aren’t.

3 Disorientation

Swimming in a straight line isn’t easy, especially if you’re used to having lane ropes to guide you. You need to get used to sighting to make sure you’re still headed in the right direction. A good way to practise sighting in the pool is to have a friend, lifeguard or coach hold up fingers on the poolside, which you count as you swim.

As a swimmer, remember, you look along the water’s surface. You simply won’t see objects above your horizon, and the buoys on a tri swim course can be small or obscure, so it’s important to get the gist of the course before you start. Count the buoys, and note land markers perpendicular to them – so, say when you see the ‘boat house’ you know the ‘left turn’ is coming up. Have a look at the exit ramp and note any flags or trees behind it.

Once you know your bearings, stick to them and trust them; don’t just blindly follow the pack. If you do start to feel lost or confused, simply sight forward or look up. You will lose far less time doing this than by veering in the wrong direction and having to triangle back.

4 Wetsuit Issues

Make sure you practise in your suit regularly, so that come race day it’s like a second skin. Wetsuits require extra shoulder strength, often encourage you to breathe on one side more than the other and can make sighting difficult. You need to have overcome these obstacles before race day!

If you find your suit is filling up, quickly feel behind your neck to make sure the Velcro is fastened. Tighten this and carry on. If the wetsuit is compressing, you need to pull it up from the hips. Avoid this by taking time when you put the suit on to pull up each leg so that there are no folds. The suit needs to be tight to the gusset for you to feel mobile. And if you fear your wetsuit coming undone (which is very unlikely), then tuck your strap in your swim hat so nobody can catch it.

5 Goggle Worries

The poor old swimming goggle is burdened with a lot of expectation. If they leak, snap or come off, they are often blamed for losing or even ending a race. In actual fact, lost goggles should never slow you down (and what’s more, in 20 years of training, only diving has ever ripped my goggles off). That said, goggle problems or lost goggles will exasperate the difficulty of correct orientation and swimming within a group.

So be prepared and practise swimming without goggles, just in case. And just to be on the safe side, wear your goggle strap under your hat with both straps high.


Ready for the off

Paying attention to all of these pointers, however small, will ensure that you’re better prepared for the open water… and, more importantly, make you feel ready. Assertive orientation will work best when you’re confident that you can deal with any external race-day factor, and will leave you free to concentrate on your pace and technique. Just like you would in a pool.

Assertive orientation

Assertive orientation is a concept of my own invention, but it’s the key to open-water swimming. The best example of assertive orientation can be observed by watching an elite swimmer swim in a public lane.

The faster swimmer will weave in and out, losing no speed and rarely causing problems in the flow of the lane. Weaker swimmers, who are not spatially aware in the water and not confident of their orientation, will seem slow in their movements and have to slow significantly to pass people or to move out of the way.

Assertive orientation, as I call it, is a skill, just like dribbling a football or basketball. Just imagine yourself as a motorbike through traffic, squeezing into (and accelerating through) spaces and you’ll get the idea!