Open Water Racing Veteran Shares 10 Tips for Novices

Robert LaBerge/Allsport

A lot has happened to John Flanagan since I spoke to him weeks ago and learned about his rather unorthodox method of training-by-fax.

He has been to Brazil for the Fina World Cup Championships, where he placed a very respectable fifth place in the 10K, completing the distance in 2:00:29 and finishing within 10 seconds of the winner; a close field if ever there was one.

Following up, I was particularly interested in finding out what Flanagan would suggest to novice open-water swimmers and triathletes who normally dread the first leg of their event. While I write about many aspects of open-water swimming and will continue to do so as long as you faithful readers request, I hoped that Flanagan would contribute a few pointers as a guest speaker, and perhaps even teach me a thing or two, given that he beat me at last year's Hawaii Roughwater (OK, and last year's Tiburon Mile in San Francisco as well, but who's counting?).

"The most important aspect of open-water swimming is experience," Flanagan says. "Get out and do it as much as you can."

Because open-water swimming includes many variables that differ from pool swimming, the only way to get better is by experience and exposure to the various conditions that the sport has to offer.

"Personally," Flanagan explains, "I enjoy the sport because it forces you to look at your effort to measure performance, rather than times. Not every day are we able to swim a best time in the pool, but we can always strive for giving our best effort during a race. Because of different conditions, race courses, etc., time is not a factor. Our training, diet and race preparation all impact our performance on race day. In my years of open-water experience, I may have made all the mistakes you can make."

Since we all know that the best way to learn is from our mistakes, here are Flanagan's top 10 tips for open water swimming, to help you avoid some of his mistakes and swim your best race.

1. Practice Sighting

I've found that the best way to sight during a race is to lift the head and look forward as you are turning your head to breathe. You want to limit how high you lift your head because your hips will drop, so try just below the goggle line. Then take your breath when you turn your head to the side.

2. Time When You Sight

The more you look, the more tired you get. The less you look, the less straight you may swim. It is a trade-off, but you need to find what is comfortable for you in the race you are in. If you are in an ocean race, be sure to sight as you are rising from a swell so you can see.

3. Train in Open Water

If you have a chance to train in the open water, take advantage of it. It is not always the fastest swimmers that win open water races, but the ones who swim the smartest race and have the most experience.

4. Stay Warm During the Race

I've been in races where my body just shuts down because of the cold. Try to avoid it by using everything you can: Wetsuits, two caps and earplugs all help keep you warm during those frigid races.

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