In 2021 I competed in my first open water race as part of an Ironman 70.3. Prior to this, I had virtually no swim experience and swimming in open waters (let alone in a pool) was just a requirement to compete in a long sought-after dream of becoming a triathlete. Over my first year of training, I went from zero-to-obsessed and discovered an enduring love for open water swimming. I learned many things in a short time frame and in this article I highlight 5 key insights that come to mind for anyone who may be new to the open water and getting ready to dip their toes in the deep end.
1. Define your open water swim goals
Are you swimming for leisure? Endurance? Or competing in races?
It may seem silly to start by labelling your goals, but it’s extremely helpful in setting you up for success. Understanding your motivations will give you a better indicator of the type of training and practice required to achieve your goals and will help you prepare for any barriers or challenges in your path. Open water swimming is one of the most incredible sports I’ve ever participated in both as an individual and in a group. It is both physically challenging and mentally stimulating in ways that are simply not achieved in any other sport I’ve been a part of. Despite learning to swim as a means to an end (triathlon), I’ve had moments where I imagined that open water swimming could be a true love or calling. It inspires a dramatic combination of emotions such as fear and anticipation, to adventure and romance. The open water is also uniquely connected to wilderness and nature in a way that can feel other-worldly as it sits distinctly beyond our typical comforts and operates by its own set of rules. Playing in a space that is by its very nature foreign feels risky yet achievable, we want to get closer and can not stay away. In my case, open water swimming started as a sport, but it continues as a lifestyle and adventure.
2. Pool swimming is only half the preparation
It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Your mileage in the pool may only take you so far in the open water. This is because swimming in open water is naturally more difficult than what you’ll experience in the pool. Firstly, you won’t have any opportunities for short breaks every 25m-50m which some pool swimmers become reliant on. In open water you’ll be expected to swim continuously while managing your energy, breath and stroke rhythm according to your distance and the open water conditions. This requires both practice and confidence in endurance swimming. While this isn’t something that is impossible to overcome, it’s worth getting experience in. Personally, I find open water swimming becomes easier once I find my rhythm, something which is very hard to achieve in a pool.
Another important consideration here is that the pool is a very controlled environment. Not only are you organized into lanes, but your ability to see clearly mitigates the need for additional open water techniques such as sighting or spotting which must also be practiced – typically swimmers will practices these techniques in intervals as if weaving them into their stroke and breathing rhythm. They are very important in open water swimming. More to follow.
New to the open water and looking to test out your endurance? Our 750m course is the perfect entry point for pool swimmers looking to get into deeper waters.
3. Open water swimming is its own discipline
Open water conditions are rarely predictable requiring open water swimmers to be adaptable by nature. Subtle changes to weather conditions often dramatically impact the water’s surface requiring modifications to stroke and breathing. Again, none of this is hard to do, but its worth experiencing first-hand which strokes are more efficient in choppy water or in wavy conditions. As someone with no formal swim training and who learned to swim at a local YMCA at the age of 29, I was surprised by how adaptable I became in both choppy and windy waters. Once I became comfortable in the water’s turbulent rhythms, I no longer struggled but actually swam in tune with my environment in a way that felt efficient and at ease.
Another important consideration here is again on the topic of sighting. The ability to swim in a straight line is critical as it reduces wasted effort, may be required to keep the the swimmer safe and away from hazards, and often necessary for completion of a course or set distance. However, sighting and spotting is a distinctly open water skill that requires practice, especially in ranging water conditions.
If you’re curious about advancing your sighting and spotting techniques our 4,000m course is made for you!
4. Invest in open water swim gear
Whether you’re swimming to compete, or swimming for meditation and exercise, if you’re in open waters you need proper gear. A visible swim cap (I highly recommend bright colours in open water), a swim buddy (an inflatable swim device that straps around the swimmer’s waist and drags a few feet behind on the water’s surface), a proper wetsuit, and not to forget goggles, are essential equipment for the open water swimmer. Each of these will keep you visible to others and offer some degree of buoyancy which comes in handy on longer swims.
I highly advocate in favour of a wetsuit especially in longer distances. A wetsuit will also control loss of heat, and if swimming in colder waters, consider a thermal wetsuit. There is a huge variety of wetsuits depending on swim style, body type, and season so consider some research before buying your first suit!
5. Prepare for open water panic
It’s virtually inevitable if you’re new to open water swimming. I’ve known some exceptionally strong, competitive swimmers all who’ve recounted their first open water swims as hilarious battles to stay calm and moving forward despite the unanticipated panic that was setting in. For example, both Sasha’s and I’s first open water races we both kept our heads out of water during our swims… now imagine that for a moment…(its okay to laugh)!
I call it “hydra shock” and its about as real as anything else I’ve experienced. Underlying this phenomenon is anxiety which can be triggered by a variety of scenarios that is unique to the individual so I’ll list out some more common items to be aware of and to prepare for before your event or open water swim.
- Have you ever swam in open water where you to lost visibility? i.e front crawl swimming in dark waters over a longer distance where you can not see your hand or the ground below you? It is common to panic when swimming in darkness as this can be a new experience for many, very uncomfortable, and something that is not experienced in a pool.
- Are you unfamiliar with the open water or new to the location you are swimming in? Similar to the above, if you are still building comfort and confidence in new waters where visibility is lacking, and you’re building up your strength, you may become anxious in new environments where additional variables are out of your control. This in turn may cause stress and dysregulated breathing making it almost impossible to swim calmly, if at all.
- Are the water conditions new to you or are you feeling panic with the conditions at the time? This is another common reason for panic in open water that causes the swimmer to lose control of their breathing and effectively swim the conditions. Conditions such as rain, choppy water, big waves, (sea sickness while open water swimming is possible) are all examples of scenarios that can cause stress and panic.
- Are there too many people, or not enough people in the water, for your comfort level? Swimming in a medley can be especially chaotic and cause new swimmers extreme stress due to kicking, choppy water, and disruption to swim rhythm and breathing. Because it’s harder to simulate these conditions in practice it’s especially difficult to overcome prior to any event. Swim camps, training camps, or swim groups are all great practice opportunities. At the same time, some swimmers who’ve never swam alone in open water may experience panic if they lose sight of others. A recommendation is to become familiar in the water and slowly introduce yourself to all the variables that may cause you added stress.
The above are just a handful of examples of what I attribute as triggers for “hydra shock”. My first race I experienced profound hydra shock in part due to a choatic medley of swimmers and stress of the race, but because I had experienced this before in training camp (triggered by unfamiliar dark waters) I knew that it was something I could experience and had a race strategy in mind before entering the water. Fortunately for me, I was able to successfully complete the swim portion of my race and am proof that none of these factors need to overwhelm your swim or your swim goals!
Looking for some inspiration? Watch this 3 minute mini documentary of Sasha’s first 36km attempt across Christina Lake.