Making The Jump!
Throughout my coaching career, I have been asked for some tips on how to safely make the transition from pool to open water to prepare for triathlons and/or ocean races. The open water is obviously a very different environment compared to the pool. There are new factors that an athlete needs to consider and prepare for. Some of these new variables include but are not limited to colder water temperatures, currents, waves, salt water, not being able to see the bottom and ocean life. No matter one’s ability in the pool, many of these factors can cause even the best swimmer to panic once in the open water. Below are just a few tips that you can use to help you make the jump from the pool to open water!
Never Go Alone
In the open water anything can happen no matter your ability. Because of this, it is important to never go alone and to try to go in designated swim zones. The best possible supervision is having a kayaker or stand up paddle boarder who is comfortable in the open water escort you during the swim. A kayaker or SUP escort will help if you feel uneasy since you can grab the watercraft if you feel you need to do so, the escort can also make you more visible to boats in the area and your escort can help direct you until you get a handle on sighting. If you can’t find a watercraft escort then the next best would be an experienced swim buddy who can keep an eye on you and help you in the event that there is an issue. Having a swim buddy is great but if there is a lifeguard on duty this is even better! Finally, a person to walk on shore with binoculars is better than nothing but if a lifeguard is present that is definitely a little safer. If the person can swim and you have a problem, your spotter can come and get you depending on the situation. At the very least spotter can call for help and give information to the rescue team if need be. No matter your ability, but especially if you are a beginner, it is important to never swim alone and bring one of these support crew with you.
Stay Shallow & Swim Parallel To Shore
When you are new to open water swimming, one of the scariest changes for people is not being able to see the bottom and not being able to stand up or grab on to a wall or lane line if you need help. Newer open water swimmers tend to panic when they can’t see the bottom. The easiest fix to this is to start by staying shallow and swimming parallel to shore. You don’t need to swim out to sea when you do your open water swims. You just need to be deep enough so your hands don’t touch the bottom when you pull. I tend to have new open water swimmers start in waist deep water and then progress to chest deep water when they are feeling more comfortable. This allows a swimmer to stand up or be within 2 to 3 strokes of standing up in case they start feeling uneasy. Over time and with practice eventually you will be able to swim in any depth but take it slow and be safe. Depending on shoreline conditions this may not be a possibility as the waves may be crashing close to shore in which case you need to have a solid understanding of your limitations so you can make the safest decision. It may be best to find a calmer swim spot until you start feeling more comfortable in the open water.
Swimming parallel to shore also helps because you have a closer exit point in case of emergency. If you swim straight out to sea and an incident occurs, you have to turn around and swim all the way back to get out. Depending on the type of problem, this could be life and death. If you are too far out, then you may not be able to make it back to exit. By swimming parallel to shore and somewhat close to the shore line, exiting the water will be much easier to achieve. Swimming parallel to shore also helps give you another reference point when sighting and trying to figure out where you are while swimming. Although these are not always possible given the conditions, this will make your first open water experience both fun and safer!
Don’t Forget To Sight!
One skill that essential to open water swimming whether it be for triathlon, open water swim races or just general fitness is sighting. Sighting is simply looking up while swimming to figure out where you are and to make sure you are swimming on course. How to sight is a totally different blog post, but for the purposes of this post all you need to know is that you need to be sighting. The biggest mistakes I see with regard to sighting in newer open water swimmers is that they do not sight often enough or they don’t know they need to sight until it is too late. Depending on how you swim and the ocean conditions, swimming in a straight line may be very difficult. This means that if you are sighting every few minutes, then there is a good chance you will end up going out to sea or beaching yourself like a whale! In order to prevent this from happening, I generally recommend sighting around every 10 to 12 strokes. This allows you to catch yourself before you go off course and you can make the necessary adjustments. As you get better and swim in a straighter line, then you will be able to stretch this stroke range out. It is always better to sight a little more often at first and experiment as you gain more experience. The quickest path between two points is a straight line, so use your sighting to help you actually achieve that straight line.
Know Your Limits
This is an extremely important tip. It is essential to know your limits especially when you are new to open water swimming. Swimming in the open water is very fun and is pretty safe but it does have its dangers. It is important that when you enter the water for your swim that you are comfortable with the conditions. If you go in feeling uneasy or are peer pressured to swim, then there is a much higher risk for an incident to occur. This not only puts you at risk but also all puts your swim buddies at risk too. There is no shame is calling off a swim because you feel like something just isn’t right. I have called a swim due to conditions more times than I can count. It is better to skip a swim so you can swim a different day than to be dead! When you enter the open water, you need to have confidence in your ability but also a respect for the environment. If for some reason something is really bothering you about the swim or the conditions, then maybe it just isn’t your day. Don’t let your swim buddies peer pressure you into a swim if experience is truly the issue. If you are bailing on a swim because you are too lazy or don’t feel like swimming, then that is a totally different scenario. Be smart, trust your judgement and make good decisions. If you do this, then you are going to a great time in the open water!
Get The Proper Equipment
Equipment is a loaded subject when it comes to open water swimming. There are a few pieces of equipment that I recommend to swimmers to help make it a safe and enjoyable experience.
I’m a big fan of non-wetsuit swimming but for new swimmers I do recommend a wetsuit. The additional buoyancy can be a nice safety net for those not completely comfortable with swimming. Depending on your location, the water can also be cold. The wetsuit will help keep you warm in colder water climates. If you swim in really cold water you can also get a neoprene cap, boots and gloves for some extra warmth. The warmth aspect of the wetsuit is a double-edged sword because it can put you at risk for overheating if you swim in warm to hot water. If you live in a warm water climate, you do have other options. These options include sleeveless wetsuits or neoprene swim shorts. Both will add some extra buoyancy without adding as much heat as a full sleeve wetsuit. If you don’t own a wetsuit and have questions, please reach out to me and I am happy to help you make an informed decision.
Another piece of equipment that I recommend is a swim buoy. I prefer buoys from New Wave Swim Buoy. These make it much easier to spot the swimmer. This mean boats and other watercraft can see you better while you are swimming and so can your spotters on land. Although it is not a flotation device, if you do need to take a quick break or are feeling uneasy, then you can grab on to it to help you rest briefly. This particular brand also has a dry bag option. This is a nice feature since you can store your keys, phone and some food in the buoy and drag it along with you while you swim instead of leaving it on shore to potentially get stolen.
I also highly recommend a brightly colored swim cap. This is especially important if you don’t swim with a buoy. A bright swim cap may help watercraft to see you swimming and it also may help your spotter find you. This option is not as good as a buoy which sits over the water line. Additionally, if you have a problem or a boat gets too close for comfort, then you can take the cap off and wave it above your head to signal to the boat that you are there or to your spotter on land or water escort that you need help.
The final piece of equipment to consider are your goggles. It is important to have different goggles for different conditions. If it is overcast, dark or will be dark when you finish swimming, then it is best to have goggles that have clear lenses or even a slight yellow tint. If you swim when it is a little sunny, then you may consider a dark or smoke lens in your goggle. Finally, if it is extremely sunny or you know the sun will be in your face, then you will most likely want to get goggles with mirrored or polarized lenses to help keep the glare of the sun minimal. Goggle lens selection is important because you need to see where you are going. If you bring the wrong goggles with you, you will be able to swim but you may have a very difficult time navigating which will most certainly take away from some of the fun.
Open water swimming can be scary when you are new. I am hopeful that these tips will help to make your first experience in the open water fun and a bit safer. None of these tips are guaranteed to keep you totally safe but they are a guide to help navigate you from the pool to the open water. If you have been open water swimming for a while and have a tip that really helped you out when you were new, then please add it in the comments!