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Taking the Plunge: Trying out Open Water Swimming

By: Elise Crane, originally published in January, 2018

“I would do triathlons but swimming in open water terrifies me.” This is the most common explanation I’ve heard from friends and strangers who seem perfectly poised to excel in tris. I get it—especially for the “Jaws” generation, open water is daunting. But once you embrace the darkness and churn, open water swimming can be the biggest thrill of a tri.

I learned to swim before I could walk. By age nine, I was swimming competitively, and at 11, I transitioned from summer league to year-round insanity. For years, my life revolved around daily (and sometimes twice daily) two-hour practices and weekend swim meets, where I wound myself into a ball of anxiety. If I didn’t get a best time in any one of my events, I felt like a failure and would throw myself back into the pool with a vengeance on Monday. Back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball, clocking tens of thousands of yards every week and always chasing the next level. By 14, I was utterly burnt out. I quit my year-round team and spent the next 13 years learning to love swimming again. And I found it in the open water.

At 27, I did my first triathlon. It was a sprint held in early May at a lake in Massachusetts. The water was frigid and I’d never actually trained in open water before race day. I did backstroke the entire 750 meters to avoid putting my face in the icy water. But despite that inauspicious start, I was hooked. I loved the feeling of community and brimming energy of all the swimmers around me, fording their own paths through the wide open water.

Since that first tri, I’ve devoted much more time to open water training but my message is this: if you can swim in a pool, you can swim in open water. I t’s easier than you’d think to make the transition. Here are my top three tips for moving from the pool to open water:

1) Invest in good gear.

Wetsuit - The added buoyancy of a good wetsuit will keep you closer to the water’s surface and reduce the choppiness you feel. I prefer a sleeveless wetsuit with full-length legs for maximum shoulder mobility while still preserving warmth. You’ll want to choose a thicker option for cooler waters, but my suit has a 3mm thick front and 2mm thick back. It’s been great in water temperatures above 60 degrees F (Note: USA Triathlon prohibits the use of wetsuits in water temperatures above 78 degrees F).

Goggles - Some triathletes like clear goggles but I prefer tinted; you don’t see much below the surface anyway and tinted goggles reduce the glare of the sun on the water.

Ear plugs – I find wax ear plugs add a bit of extra insulation and reduce the distraction of water in your ears.

2) Don’t panic. Many tri swim courses are within throwing distance of the shore. But even if you’re further out in the water, there are always rescue kayaks or boats nearby. Tri organizers take safety seriously and help is never far away. If you find yourself panicking, do breaststroke for a few seconds to catch your breath and get your bearings.

3) Breathe fully. If the water is cold, your breathing might get shallow. Don’t let it—take the time to fully exhale and inhale. And don’t be afraid to breathe every two strokes, even if you breathe every three in pool practices.

So get out there and give it a shot! Escape the confines of the pool and embrace the freedom of open water. If you practice at all before race day, you’ll be way ahead of where I was for my first tri!

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