Introduce Yourself to Open Water Swimming

So you've been swimming the length of a pool for years and are ready to venture out and do some open water swimming? Open water swims have gained huge popularity in the last few years. Before you go dipping into your local shoreline, however, keep these tips in mind:

1. Never swim alone. For safety purposes, always swim with a group or bring a friend. Given the unknown elements a dangerous situation may arise, such as fog, currents or boats, and you will be better protected with others around.

2. Adjust to cold water. If the water you are swimming in is cold—below 66 degrees Fahrenheit—be prepared to go in with a wetsuit. Also, wearing a swim cap and earplugs can help keep your head warm. Enter the water slowly and only stay in for five to 20 minutes the first time out, gradually increasing your time in the water with each swim.

3. Get warm. Following your swim drink warm fluids, take off your wetsuit and dress warmly.

So, what other skills do you need to master the open water? Employ the two open water swimming fundamentals below and you will have no worries when it comes to your first (or your next) open water race:


In a pool it is easy to swim straight—you have lane lines and a black line at the bottom of the pool to keep you from going too far off course. Not being able to swim straight in the open water adds unwanted distance to the race, thereby slowing you down.

The solution is to periodically look up from the water, which is called sighting. Most swimmers, in fact, don't sight and end up off course—one reason not to trust that the person in front of you knows exactly what they're doing.

Sighting every six to eight arm cycles is an adequate count for a beginner. Lift your head at the beginning of a breath, just enough so that your goggles rise above the water line. As soon as you spot the shore or an object in the distance, continue your rotation and take a breath as you tilt your head to the side.

The best time to lift your head is when the arm of the side you breathe on is coming forward. As the arm passes by your goggle line, move your head to the other side and lay it down by your shoulder. Note: Practice this in the pool first. It takes some getting used to, but doing just two or three laps at each pool session can be very beneficial.


As in cycling and auto racing, following closely behind another swimmer is called drafting. Drafting is allowed in official open water swimming rules and the benefits are twofold. First, you are getting pulled a bit by someone else. This alone can give you a ten percent advantage over someone breaking through the water on their own. Second, you won't have to look up as often, as you can let your lead swimmer do that for you. However, you still need to sight; if they are headed off course you don't want a blind leading the blind situation.

Just like sighting, drafting is best practiced in a pool with your lane buddies. You want to be close to the person in front of you without touching their feet. Ultimately, you want to maintain a position directly behind the swimmer for the entire lap. Take turns leading. You'll quickly notice how much harder you have to work when you're in front.

Open water swimming can be challenging, but for many it's a nice change from "following the black line" at the bottom of a pool and a great way to add some adventure to the swimming experience.

Kevin operates the website, a resource for beginning through intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming. The site features a free email newsletter offering tips and articles on triathlon swimming. Kevin has also written an electronic book titled The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming which is sold on his website in downloadable form.

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