Open-water swim tactics

Worried about racing in open water? Fear not - expert Andy Blow has all the advice you need for all levels of ability, whether you're a nervous newbie or a near-dolphin...

Head to T1 after a great swim with our top tips

Open-water swimming can be the most exciting – and daunting – element of triathlon. But it needn’t be so. We’ve broken that opening leg down into three sections, offering advice for complete beginners, intermediate swimmers looking to advance and racers seeking that extra competitive edge.



Newcomers to open-water swimming will find that they are faced with four main challenges…

The cold

The mammalian diving reflex that kicks in when your face hits cold water can cause shallowness of breath, muscle tightness and panic. To lessen the effects, enter the water slowly and splash your face with water before submerging it. Swim with your head up at first, gradually lowering it into the water. Breathe out slowly.

Wearing a wetsuit

This will almost certainly feel restrictive to begin with. Get the most flexible, well-fitting suit you can, and practise wearing it in the pool and in open water.

Getting knocked by other swimmers

This happens most during starts and turns. If you’re nervous, start at the back and to one side of the masses. Approach turns wide so you don’t get caught between others and the buoys.

‘Things’ in the water

In UK waters there’s little to worry about. Even if something is lurking, it will be more afraid of you and the other hundred thrashing bodies!


Swimming the shortest possible distance is the aim, so navigation – learning to sight swim buoys and landmarks – is critical. This means knowing the course.

There should be a map board with a course description, so study it. If possible, get into the water to see how visible the buoys are when swimming. Line up any prominent features on the land to use as reference points.

Ensure you have anti-fog goggles with the right lenses for the conditions (tinted or mirrored for sunshine; clear or yellow/orange for low light). When swimming, look up every four to six strokes to ensure you’re on course. Don’t just follow the feet in front of you!


When you’re racing at the sharp end of the swim, it’s all about tactics, pacing and race craft. Try to start among the other top swimmers with a good straight line to the first turn buoy. Don’t get caught on the inside, as cutting in at the last minute can be tricky.

Unless you plan on leading the swim out, tail another swimmer to conserve energy. Find a set moving at the right pace. This will likely mean putting in a huge effort at the beginning to get near the front, and then settling into a sustainable pace once you’re there.

If the person in front is going too slowly, you’ll have to act quickly and decisively to get past them. Work really hard for a few seconds; you can recover once you get to the next set of feet.

On exiting the swim, remove the top half of your wetsuit while it’s still full of water (it’ll fall off quicker), and be prepared for a quick run to T1 to maximise your advantage.


Whatever level you’re at, the quickest way to improve is with specific practice. While we can train for the bike and run in similar conditions to those seen on race day, it’s not so easy with swim training, which usually takes place in the pool. This means seizing every opportunity to get out in open water.

When you do, always observe the basic safety rules, including never swimming alone or unsupervised; finding out about the water depth, quality, tides, rips and currents before entering; and not pushing yourself beyond comfortable limits. Open-water swimming can be hazardous if not approached with respect.


Practise these key outdoor swim skills…

Bilateral breathing

The ability to breathe on both sides is a real benefit in open water. Alternate 12 strokes breathing to one side with 12 strokes breathing the other way, followed by 10 strokes breathing on every third stroke.

Starts and turns

Start on the beach or shore of a lake. Run in and sprint out to a turn buoy about 50m out, turn and sprint back in. Recover and repeat 6-10 times. This is a good session to do in a group because it will help you get used to mass race starts.


Drafting drills

Work in pairs or small groups, like a chaingang on the bike, with the swim leader taking a set distance (measured between buoys or other visible markers) and others sitting on their feet. Spice it up by putting in efforts when on the front to try to shake off those following, before re-grouping at the next marker and swapping leaders.