Newbie’s Guide to Open Water Swimming

Pink cap arms up

Open water swimming is a bit different than a dip in the pool. Mother Nature doesn’t always keep her bathtubs at a balmy 80 degrees, and when the only walls are walls of waves, an open water swim can seem intimidating. But we at Swim Across America know from experience that there’s nothing like the soft sound of rolling waves, the energy of becoming one with the water, and the accomplishment of crossing that finish line on the beach.

United by our commitment to the fight against cancer, we take pride in all who contribute to the cause. For those that swim with us, or are considering getting their feet wet, we’ve compiled some basic tips for taking the plunge!

Getting Ready

Believe it or not, most open water swimmers do a lot of training in pools. When prepping for an event, make sure you can swim at least the distance of the course comfortably. You can also practice a couple things that will help you once you get out onto the open seas:

  • Practice breathing to both sides. Bi-lateral breathing not only balances your body in the water, it can help you keep the sun from bothering your eyes, sight the shore without lifting your head, and avoid splashes from fellow swimmers.
  • Learn a few high-elbow drills. Waves in the open water can impede your recovery, so working on a stroke with a high elbow can help you to better extend your pull and catch the water.
  • Practice sighting. Since visibility can be low, you’ll need to sight where you’re swimming and establish a rhythm of lifting your eyes to see. Try the Gator Drill:
    • Close your eyes while your face is in the water, and lift your eyes slightly like an alligator to sight where you are in the pool while you practice. Get used to a rhythm of sighting (every 5 strokes, or more if you feel you can stay straight.) Be careful once you get close to the wall!!

Before race day, it’s helpful to have practiced even a little in the open water. If you can, swim part (or all!) of the course- it’s a great way to get comfortable.

The Main Event

Now is the time to trust your training and kick some open water butt! The most important thing to remember before your first open water event is to keep your composure. Panic can be a worse enemy than a riptide. Relax and remember not to fight the water, and your swim will be a piece of cake!

In case you’re so nervous you’re practically wetting your wetsuit, here are a few last-minute tips.

  • Nervous about your goggles coming off? Put them on before your cap, so they’re snugly underneath it. They won’t budge.
  • Nervous about getting run over by the pack? Position yourself on the outskirts of the swimmers before the start, and avoid the chaos from the beginning.
  • Starting to get nervous during the swim? Don’t forget- if you need to roll over and do some backstroke, mix in some breaststroke, or even just float for a while, that’s perfectly fine. Do what you need to re-focus and relax, then get moving again!
  • Get in a good warm-up. Whether it’s in or out of the water, a good warm-up will get you psyched for an event and physically ready as well.

Think you can handle more? Here are a couple other tips for the more confident open water newbie:

  • If you can’t see a buoy or a landmark you’re using to spot, follow the pack. Usually they’ll be going in the right direction. Check periodically to re-situate yourself and find your landmark.
  • Periodically breathe to the side that the shore is on in order to spot yourself and lift your head less.
  • Packs of swimmers can form and can get strung out, or split up, throughout the course. Make a plan! Figure out if it’s beneficial for you to get into a pack, and if so, where it’s best for you to position yourself within it, and what to do if you get strung out.

From becoming one with the water to the palpable camaraderie to that feeling of accomplishment as you run underneath the finish-line arch, open water swims are an exciting challenge and satisfying experience. Train smart (I can almost hear the Rocky theme song now…) and remember to have fun on event day!

We’ll see you and the rest of the Swim Across America family on the beach.