Swimming in the open ocean—either for a triathlon or an open water swim—can throw a wrench in your race preparation.
At the 2013 Encinitas Triathlon, for example, the ocean swim just happened to fall on a day of unusually high waves and rough breaks, coupled with a strong current that flowed right through the race course. The race directors offered to change entries to a duathlon for those uncomfortable tackling the conditions, but several triathletes (many first-timers) braved the elements and eventually got through it.
Ocean swimming is a lot different from swimming pools or even open water swimming in ponds and lakes. Here are eight elements of ocean swimming that will play a factor the first time you dive into the vast sea for your coastal triathlon or open water swim.
Water Temperature1 of 9
While a competitive swimming pool usually is a consistent 80 degrees, the ocean temperature varies by location. In Southern California, ocean temperatures typically are between 65 and 70 degrees during the summer race season. In Hawaii, the water temperatures range from 75 to 85 degrees depending on the season. In South Florida, the water temperature rarely dips below 70 but can get as warm as 85 degrees in the summer.
The good news is, a wetsuit will help you out if the temperatures are chilly. USA Triathlon rules permit wetsuits when the water temperature is 78 degrees or below. Some open water swims allow wetsuits but put those swimmers in a different race category from the traditional swimmers.
Entries2 of 9
Many races in the ocean require entering the water from the beach, and swimming out beyond the crashing waves.
This is not as easy as just swimming through the surf. Waves that crash on you when you're not expecting it can knock your goggles and swim cap off and leave you a little dazed.
Until you know you're past the break, swim with your head up--or at least look up every 2 to 3 strokes until the crashing waves are behind you and you can finally get in a rhythm. If a wave is about to crash on you, dive under it and let the force go right over your body.
Once you're past the breaks, the swim may have swells. As Steven Munatones writes in his book Open Water Swimming, "Swim through the swells by piercing the top of the wave with your lead hand. You do not have to dive deeply under each of the rolling swells."
Currents3 of 9
Oceans have a variety of currents that may push you in a certain direction without you even realizing it. This is where sighting is crucial.
Depending on how strong the current is, look up occasionally and lock eyes on your target (be it a buoy, or a building just behind the finish line or something else you can't miss). This will allow you to correct the result of a current pushing you off course. In the end, you aren't likely to swim in a straight line in the current-filled ocean, but that's what makes open water swimming so fun, right?
Breathing4 of 9
Those swells are going to keep your swim interesting. It's likely that you will occasionally come up for a breath only to have a wave smack you in the face and make breathing impossible during that stroke. First off, don't panic. Keep going and get your breath during the next stroke. Many coaches recommend getting a breath before you need to—that is, have some air in your lungs just in case the ocean waves don't let you inhale as planned.
You may notice that you'll roll a little more dramatically to get your breath, knowing that the water isn't as flat or predictable as a pool. This is OK, and even recommended.
Dense Water5 of 9
Salt water is denser than fresh water (64 pounds per cubic foot to 62.4 pounds per cubic foot), so some swimmers may notice that they are a little more buoyant in the ocean than they would be in a lake or pool.
This is good and bad—you can float a little easier and swim higher in the water, but it might be a little more difficult to pull your stroke through the heavier water. Overall, though, the difference isn't that big. But some swimmers definitely notice it.
Marine Wildlife6 of 9
In the week leading up to the 2013 Ironman World Championships on Hawaii's Big Island, two triathletes training on the swim course suffered minor injuries from being bitten by a playful baby seal. While this is unusual, it is true that some triathlons and open water swims will put you face-to-face with marine wildlife.
The La Jolla Rough Water Swim is known for the colorful fish swimming underneath you, and dolphins and sea lions are typically seen near the course. The Ironman Kona course has similar wildlife encounters.
Of course, the first thought for first-time ocean swimmers are sharks, and yes, sharks are in all of the world's oceans. But the chances of seeing a shark, much less being bitten by one, are extremely low.
Anxiety7 of 9
The ocean can be an intimidating place for a swimmer—it's got power a human can only dream of. One of your biggest weapons when swimming in the ocean is your poise. Refusing to panic and keeping your composure does wonders in helping you deal with whatever the ocean throws your way.
If you finding yourself panicking, take a break. Roll over on your back and settle down. Then roll back over and get after it again.
Exits8 of 9
Some swimmers, when approaching the swim exit, will stand up and start trying to run out of waist-deep water. The truth is, you're better off swimming as long as possible, until your fingers scrape the ground during your stroke.
If you're in a triathlon, start taking your goggles, swim cap and wetsuit off as you start running out of the water.
One other thing about exits—the breaks are working in your favor now. If you're lucky, you may get picked up by a wave and do a little body surfing toward the shore.