Make your first open-water race experience a good one

Credit: Chris Cole/Allsport
Practicing in the ocean and lakes is important, but you must be safe and always swim with others, have a paddle board monitor, or at the very least, let a lifeguard know your intentions.

Open-water swimming is distinctly different from pool swimming. Visibility is often less than an arm's length, and the temperature can be quite cold, which presents certain physiological considerations for any swimmer.

Also, wave flows, wind, swells, breakers, tides, undertows and rip currents may be present and make conditions challenging for swimmers of all experience levels. However, open-water swimming is a wonderful activity and should be considered a safe discipline when you have a fundamental understanding of conditions you may encounter.

The following tips assume you have a wetsuit and/or swimsuit; two swim caps (bright colors) or a neoprene cap; and have used petroleum or lanolin on your feet, neck, forehead and other exposed areas.

Tip 1: Sighting the course

Have a clear understanding of the course you intend to swim. That is, where the buoys are and the direction of travel. Are you to keep the buoys on the left or right and/or a combination thereof? Where is the exit for the swim, or the path to the transition? Use landmarks instead of buoys (until within 200 yards or so) when swimming away from, alongside or toward the shore.

Waves, sun, troughs, crests and other swimmers' splashes and arms can hide a buoy when a point of land, bridge, pier, anchored boat or other large distinguished object can keep you on course.

Tip 2: Entering the water before the race

First, I recommend you warm up, no matter how cold the water. Wetsuits permit this without the risk of getting too cold (light jogging will help you stay warm too after the warm-up). Spend five to 10 minutes loosening up your swimming muscles, entering and perhaps, swimming past the ocean breakers and getting used to the water conditions.

You can also use stretch cords for the warm-up as well. Try to be out of the water and ready for your wave five to 15 minutes before the start. Keep your head and eyes covered, as this is where the most heat is lost.

Tip 3: Starting your race

For a beach start, do exactly what you've practiced in training. In other words, don't sprint into the surf if this isn't what you're used to. For most, approach the ocean focusing on the oncoming waves. You can run and walk through waves, as long as they aren't above your mid-hip.

At this point, it is better to begin swimming to meet the next wave, which will likely be a bit larger. If you are still walking and the wave is at stomach level or above, stand sideways to the wave. This presents less body surface and reduces the amount of distance you may be pushed back.

Now, you must begin to swim to meet the next wave. If the wave is breaking, dip under the wave just as it approaches having taken a breath of air and lower yourself (just below the base of the wave) or if you're swimming (which is best) swim under the crest of the wave by stroking into the wave and holding both arms outstretched in front. In a brief moment the wave will pass and you'll be swimming down the backside of the wave. Repeat this until you've swam past the breakers and are now in the swells. Remember, stay relaxed and stretch your stroke out "long and loose" so as to not go into oxygen debt.

Tip 4: Dealing with other swimmers at the start

Once swimmers enter the water they go from a vertical (running) to a horizontal (swimming) position. This changes the gaps between people, making matters notably tight and squeezed. So, not only do the action of the waves move you about, but other swimmers too will likely be bumping you with their arms, legs, hips and even an occasional foot in the goggle. That is, if you decide to get in the pack trying to go the same place at the same time.

Or, you can choose to lie back a few moments and choose a more peaceful entry, either on the far sides, or hang back for the main pack to swim away. Once you begin, focus on getting through the breakers by going over the small waves closest to the shore and under those waves further out that are about to break over you by swimming underneath the crest of the wave. If you know this is going to be a problem for you, practice this before the race with a group of friends or club members.

Tip 5: Beyond the breakers

Yes, this is where the ocean often becomes a magnificently elegant place to be while swimming. If the swells aren't too big, waves will buoy up and down gently if it's not too windy, making for a pleasant experience. Otherwise, the patterns can be choppy, more like a washing machine stuck on "agitation."

In the latter, your stroke will change significantly from the pool, where the arm recovery is executed with a straighter arm (as opposed to bent-elbow recovery) in order to minimize drag from oncoming waves. Now, the priority becomes sighting and swimming the shortest course possible within your capabilities. Here you want to remain calm and keep your perceived exertion moderate and remain focused on staying relaxed and smooth, breathing every stroke and sighting your course occasionally.

Tip 6: Sighting the mark

Intermittently, you'll need to lift your head up to sight the course. Now, you can follow other swimmers too, but this is trusting they are swimming on course. It's important to look up for your land or sea mark (buoy, anchored boat, etc.) two or three times (maximum) per minute or so.

However, in doing so you will go slower (takes more energy) if your head is up for too long. I like to time the sighting check with the recovery on my dominant breathing side. When the right arm is coming forward the head raises up slightly to the breathing side for air. At this point, instead of putting the face back into the water, sight your mark and check the course. If you don't spot your mark (you may be in a trough of a wave) keep going and sight again in 15 to 30 seconds. If you're off course, correct yourself in a straight line to the mark.

What is often overlooked is the training of the head-up technique in the pool. Doing so will acclimate you to the conditions in the ocean or lake swims. Swim with the head out of the water for two or three strokes in the middle of the pool for a set of 12 x 25's with 15 seconds' rest. Then do another set of 8 x 25 with five seconds' rest, performing the technique described above for the open water by doing one sighting stroke per 25 yards.

Last but not least, check your swimming direction in the pool by closing your eyes lightly for a half-length. This will give you an idea of which way you tend to swim. You'll probably run into the lane line within a few strokes.

Tip 7: Rounding the mark

Rounding a buoy with other swimmers can be made more comfortable by taking a wider arc. Swimmers next to and alongside the buoy tend to logjam, going from horizontal to vertical and back to horizontal. This is much like a traffic jam that can often be avoided by taking a wider path around the buoy. Remember: Keep composed and your mind on the task and open-water swimming will be more enjoyable.

Tip 8: Exiting the water

If there are breakers, swimmers need to learn how to body-surf the waves as they approach the shore. Catching waves require good timing and some additional kicking, and sometimes sprinting depending on the size of the wave.

When the wave approaches and is about break, it's best to attempt to get on top of the wave and hold both arms out front with your fists closed. As the wave starts to whitewash, start swimming again, attempting to stay atop the wave.

Once you've touched sand with your fingertips, dig both hands and fingers into the sand slightly to help pull you up and out. Parenthetically, you can use this same technique going out as well if the waves are breaking close to shore. When the wave approaches, dive under the wave and dig your hands into the sand and pull yourself under and up through the wave.

Tip 9: Keeping your composure

Predictably, at some time or another every open-water swimmer is challenged with a fearful situation. However, I like to point out that just about every time you ride your bike or run you are equally faced with similar circumstances (cars mainly). Perhaps, and reasonably so, many individuals have fears of unknown creatures, tidal waves or other mysteries of the sea, which cause for an assortment of trepidation of open-water swimming.

As swimmers in open water we need a healthy respect for the ocean and lakes we use. The water is going to win every time and fighting it is the quickest way to get into difficulty. So try to be in concert with the water as you move through and around it. What is fearful for one is mundane for another. I understand this as an experienced swimmer, but more importantly, as a coach. However, with prudent practice you'll find yourself gaining a safe, healthy and growing respect for swimming in open water.

Don't try to fight the water, but become part of it by streamlining yourself and maintaining composure keeping focused upon sighting, rounding buoys and pacing with long and relaxed strokes.

Marc Evans is the president of and former USA triathlon team head coach, author of Endurance Athlete's Edge and inventor of the SPEEDO SwimFoil hand paddle. Marc coaches endurance athletes of ALL ability levels from around the world from his training center in Menlo Park, Calif.

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