By Pam Rogers

From the seasoned iron-distance athlete to the aquatic newbie, pretty much everyone has experienced the trepidation — and adrenalin surge — that arises from the very thought of diving into the fray of the open water swim. There are many techniques and prep skills that can assist not only with calming our nerves, but also aid in setting up a smooth and energy-efficient swim. Here are a few of the basics:

Be fit enough to complete the swim.
This sounds obvious, but sometimes new triathletes get in over their heads. While running and cycling may be particularly strong events for many triathletes, there needs to also be a plan to complete the appropriate amount of swim training in the pool and in the open water — before your countdown weeks to a new season. Plan to train with a group or seek advice from a coach to improve endurance and skills. In other words: don’t neglect the swim component of a triathlon!

Practice swimming in the open water, not just once or twice before the race, but many times, making it a positive training habit.
Open water practice is different from pool training. There are no lane lines to guide us; the water depth, currents, waves, bottom contour, and plant life are varied and changeable. Sometimes the water can be deep and dark or murky, the temperature may not be ideal, and the sun can cause a blinding glare; We need to be familiar with these aquatic variables. Don’t worry! Spending ample time in the open water can give us a sense of comfort and belonging, and this in turn can help relieve race anxiety. Begin with some easy OW swimming accompanied by a coach or knowledgeable teammates in order to become acclimated to the conditions that will occur during race day. Practice sighting and even swimming close to a group of friends to replicate the crowd in a competition.

Improve your speed in the OW.
Once you are comfortable in the open water and have endurance, you can incorporate a plan to work on speed. What sometimes happens to us is we simply go to the ocean, bay, pond, or lake and simply in the time; not paying attention to swimming in a straight line or carving out time to swim fast segments. Just like with running or cycling, improving your swim time takes interval training: where we ramp up our speed to meet threshold goals. Try setting a buoy or have a friend on a paddleboard at a set location to swim to, so you can pick up speed for a specified length — similar to pool training. Repeat these stretches of 100 to 200 yards (or longer for longer races and goals) with rest or recovery swimming between.

Don’t abandon the pool.
Pool training even during the race season should improve open water times. In the pool environment, it’s easier to work on drills, pacing and sprint work. You’ll have an accurate measure of improvement because there is a poolside clock and accurate distances for your interval training. Seek workouts and guidelines from a qualified coach or team. Be sure to incorporate sighting and sprinting into your workouts.

Above all, at some point practice as if you are racing.
During your training, and well before race day, it’s an advantage to go to the race site and swim a warm-up followed by a mock fast race start. Do this more than one time! This will help you get over the anxiousness that comes with OW racing. It will also help you formulate a strategy for a relaxed and focused entry into the water, race positioning, and the maintenance of an even breathing pattern (as opposed to rapid and nervous breathing).

Wetsuit notes:
If you plan to wear a wetsuit in a race, practice swimming in your suit more than once or twice before an event! Don’t forget to do some sighting, running into the water, and also removing your wetsuit, many times before race day. Some swimmers report that the wetsuit feels tight around their necks or chests or that it restricts breathing; spending some quality time inside your wetsuit may alleviate those feelings. Buy a good-fitting wetsuit and wear it often enough to get used to it.

One final thought:
Write in your workout log or journal about what happens in your swim. Notes such as how your entered and exited (and how successful those tactics were), how well you sighted the buoys and finish line, how you felt while navigating the course, and how your swim equipment fit and worked can be beneficial. Looking back at previous race notes can help prepare for the next race. Always have a plan to swim faster!

With proper preparation and training, confidence comes easily. You will be ready to rock and roll — worry-free — on race day!


A former All American college swimmer and masters world champion in the breaststroke, Pam Rogers has been involved with triathlon since its early years in the 1980s. She was a swim coach for Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University and a college professor before moving to New England where she currently is a member of the steering committee of the Cape Cod Triathlon Team and coaches swimmers and triathletes on Cape Cod.