Mastering Open Water Swimming: Essential Tips by Jordan Bryden

photo: Natasha Bowyer

As a former coach and pro triathlete , I've seen many athletes face the challenge of transitioning from pool swimming to open water swimming, especially as they prepare for events like 70.3, Ironman, or Olympic Distance triathlons. In this blog post, I’ll share some essential tips that can help you make this transition smoothly and effectively.

1. The Art of Sighting: Your Compass in the Open Water One of the biggest challenges in open water is navigation. In a pool, you have clear lane lines, but in open water, it's just you and vast expanses. To navigate effectively, practice sighting in your pool sessions. This involves lifting your head slightly to spot a fixed point ahead, ensuring you’re swimming in the right direction. Regular practice will help you maintain a straight line without veering off course.

2. Breathing Techniques for Varied Conditions Unlike the calm waters of a pool, open water can be unpredictable. You might face waves, wind, and choppy conditions, requiring you to adapt your breathing. Practice bilateral breathing (breathing on both sides) to prepare for these changing conditions. This not only improves your oxygen efficiency but also prepares you for breathing on the less dominant side if needed.

3. Embracing the Crowd: Group Swimming Skills Triathlon swims often start with a flurry of activity. I'll admit the anxiety that comes along with crowded swims was a catalyst for me to leave ITU/ World Cup racing a number of years ago. Being comfortable swimming in a group is crucial. Practice swimming in close proximity to others to get used to the hustle and physical contact while in a pool and don't be afraid of a crowded lap lane.

4. Adjusting Your Stroke Rate The open water's unpredictability means you must be versatile with your stroke rate. Practice varying your stroke rate during pool sessions. Learn to pick up the pace in simulated choppy conditions and ease off in calmer scenarios. This skill helps you conserve energy and maintain efficiency during your race. Choppy conditions often mean that technique can be less important than raw strength and power.

5. Training in Varied Conditions If possible, include outdoor swims in your training. This exposure helps acclimate you to different temperatures, currents, and environmental factors. Even if true open water isn’t accessible, swimming in different pools or outdoor settings can provide valuable experience.

6. Mental Preparedness: The Key to Confidence The mental aspect of open water swimming is as important as the physical. It can be daunting to swim in a vast, open space. Use visualization techniques to mentally rehearse your swim. Positive thinking and a confident mindset go a long way in overcoming any apprehensions.

7. Safety: Your Top Priority Never compromise on safety. Use a brightly colored swim buoy for visibility, never swim alone, and be aware of local weather and water conditions. Understanding and respecting these factors are critical for a safe and enjoyable swim.

8. Gear Familiarization Get comfortable with your wetsuit, goggles, and other open water gear during training. Ensure they fit well and don’t cause any discomfort or restriction in movement. One of the most overlooked parts of swimming in a wetsuit in the open water is wearing a wetsuit the correct way. I will cover this in an upcoming blog.