When beginner triathletes start training for their first race, their biggest fear is typically open water swimming. This is entirely natural because big bodies of water are a completely foreign environment to us: the water is open dark, the waves are choppy, and there are thousands of people thrashing around in the swim pack of a race.
But no matter how afraid you are of open water swimming (OWS), you can learn to be comfortable in the swim portion of a triathlon. Our book Triathlon Swimming Foundations is one of the highest rated triathlon training books online because thousands of people have learned to swim comfortably despite all the difficulties people have when they get into triathlon.
Personally, I was terrified of the water my entire life and was eventually able to swim in the top 10% of the fastest swimmers in triathlons I entered. I even set records in open wwater marathon swims. This post will outline everything you need to know to feel confident in open water.
What you’ll learn in this beginner's guide:
- What do you need for open water swimming in triathlon
- How to overcome fear of open water swimming
- How to choose a wetsuit for open water swimming in triathlon
- How to practice open water swimming by yourself
- How to train for open water swimming in a pool
- How to sight when open water swimming
- What is a good stroke rate when open water swimming
Essential Open Water Swim Gear for Triathletes
The first thing you need to get started is the correct gear. Swim gear in a pool helps you execute drills, but swim gear in open water is about safety and actually being able to swim in lakes, oceans, and rivers.
Below is the list of gear you must have to swim well and swim safely in open water. This list recommends items specifically for beginner triathletes so we’ve chosen ones that are both effective and affordable.
Goggles for Open Water Swimming
Most beginners buy goggles that are too large and create leaks. While the big squishy ones are good in theory, there’s just too much surface area that needs to suction to your face and they tend to create more leaks. We recommend a small style that sits inside your eye socket with a little bit of silicone for padding. This will also create less drag while swimming.
If you absolutely cannot stop leaking, no matter how many models you’ve tried, you should try TheMagic5 3d printed goggles that are custom made to your face. They’re a little more expensive but a lot of people have success with them.
Best Beginner Triathlon Wetsuit
Even though it’s a few hundred dollars, a triathlon wetsuit is an absolute must for new athletes. Wetsuits provide warmth and buoyancy, so inexperienced people are much safer and less likely to panic in the water. If you panic in a race while wearing a wetsuit, you can just lie on your back, take a break to calm down, then restart when you’re ready.
Use a wetsuit for all triathlons unless the water temperature of your chosen race is so warm that wetsuits aren’t allowed. In this case, you might want to use a swim skin which compresses your entire body so you can swim faster. But swim skins don’t provide any buoyancy so they’re only for added performance and not required in races (and they don't make you any safer).
It might seem like a large expense to buy a wetsuit when you’re a total beginner, but what’s your safety worth? Also, you can purchase the entry level ROKA Maverick wetsuit for just $295. It’s by far the best beginner suit on the market, and if you don’t end up sticking with the sport, you can always sell it for close to what you paid for it.
NOTE: Many cities have stores that rent triathlon wetsuits. However, rentals typically cost around $100 and rental wetsuits have certainly been peed in by other people. Purchasing your own (and potentially reselling it later) will cost you less in the long run and keep you swimming in your own pee.
Swim Caps for Triathlon
Race organizers at almost every race will provide you with an inexpensive latex swim cap with your race number on it. You have to wear this swim cap during the race so race officials can count who is still in the water. But you should still bring your own swim cap to races, and here's why:
Putting on your own swim cap, then your goggles, then the race swim cap over your goggles will keep your head a little warmer and keep your goggles from coming off during the race.
If it’s a particularly cold water race, you can put on a neoprene swim cap that covers your ears and provides a little bit of extra warmth, then your goggles, then the race cap.
Swim Safely in Open Water With a Swim Buoy
You should try to get into open water for at least six practice swims before your first race. If you’re training in open water by yourself, or even with a friend, you should have a high visibility swim buoy for safety and to allow you to take breaks while in the water.
A swim buoy will be attached to a cord that gets tied around your waist and drags behind you while you’re swimming. It provides almost no resistance so you won’t even feel it.
The swim buoy will be visible by people on shore, people approaching in boats, or your fellow swimmers so they can see you and make sure you’re ok. As a bonus, the swim buoy can act as a dry bag and hold your phone or other small items, and you can wrap your arms around it and float to take a break without having to tread water.
How to Avoid Chafing When Open Water Swimming
Wetsuits will almost always rub around your armpits and neck when you’re swimming. Your skin will gradually toughen up, but wetsuit rashes can leave severe abrasions in some cases.
To avoid getting these rashes, you should put a product called Body Glide around your neck, armpits, and across your chest before every swim. This is particularly necessary when you swim in a wetsuit for the first time, or the first time of a season, because your skin won’t be toughened up at all.
Swim Gear Bag
A swim gear bag isn’t required for swimming or racing but it’s a really nice accessory to have. Swim gear bags are very inexpensive and are made of mesh so they let all your wet swim gear air dry without getting funky and moldy.
Ideally, you have two swim gear bags: one for your pool swim gear and one for your open water swim gear. (This may necessitate having duplicates of a few items such as your eye protection.)
As a bonus, your open water gear bag can also double as your race day transition backpack to carry everything you need from your triathlon checklist.
Triathlon Gear to Avoid
Believe it or not, there are some really commonly used items that we actually recommend you to avoid.
- Ear Plugs: Ear plugs throw off your equilibrium and can severely disorient you if there are waves in the water. Instead of using earplugs, just use the double swim cap method we outlined above and very little water should get in your ears.
- Nose Plugs: A lot of beginners use nose plugs to keep water out of their nose, but we don’t recommend this at all. Breathing when swimming is hard enough and we don’t need to make it any harder on ourselves by plugging up 66% of the holes we can breathe through.
Instead of using nose plugs, you should train yourself to have a little bit of pressure in your nose when swimming to keep water out, and to breathe out of your nose every couple of breaths to clear out any water that starts building up.
- Gloves and Booties: Neoprene gloves and booties are not allowed in almost all races. If the water for your training sessions is so cold that you feel you need gloves and booties, then you probably shouldn’t train in that water. Extreme cold for a prolonged period of time, paired with exercise, can lower your immune function and make it more likely that you get sick before your race.
How to Swim in Open Water
Once you’ve got all the right equipment, it’s time to learn how to swim in open water. We’ll cover all the basics of technique and strategy to get you comfortable in the water.
Even if you’re confident swimming in a pool, swimming in open water might still scare you. But the same way you developed comfort in the pool, you can build confidence in the open water. It’s just a matter of repetition and setting yourself up for success.
To avoid panicking in your race, you need to practice your OWS 6-15 times. Here are some guidelines to set up those practice sessions for optimal results:
- Swim in a shallow body of water where you can see, or even touch, the bottom
- Use a swim buoy and take a break to fully calm yourself down the moment you feel fear
- Stay along the shoreline as opposed to going out from shore into the middle of the water
- Picture yourself calm, floating, casual. Don’t worry about going fast or strong or for a continuous stretch of time whatsoever, just be out swimming around very casually until you develop more and more comfort
The biggest key to gaining comfort is repetition and staying calm. The more time you can spend remaining calm in the water, the more your brain will associate bodies of water with a calm state of mind and not with a panic response. Focus on moving as calmly as you can before you worry about swimming continuously.
It’s critical that you learn to sight in open water so you can see where you’re going. Most triathletes only sight once every 20-30 strokes, but elite open water swimmers in the Olympic games sight once every 2-4 strokes.
The reason you need to sight so much is because going off course will lengthen the swim portion of your triathlon. Of course, no one wants to swim more than they need to in a race because it’ll make you slower, and the swim leg of a tri is the least favorite part of a race for most people.
To sight, you simply raise your head out of the water, looking forward, then you rotate your head to breathe. If the water is calm you only need to raise your face out of the water enough so your eyes are out of the water (called “alligator eyes”). If conditions are rough, you may need to raise your entire nose up and out.
Sight by finding a spot on shore like a tall tree, a tower, or a house that’s in line with the straight line you want to swim. Then as you’re swimming, sight every third to fourth stroke to make sure you’re always moving straight toward that landmark.
How to Breathe
We've covered how to breathe in the water in this article, but something that will come up is whether you breathe bilaterally or to one side.
I recommend triathletes breathe as much as possible when swimming. So instead of breathing every third stroke (called “bilateral breathing”) you should breathe every second stroke, but switch which side you breathe every 50 or 100 meters during your pool workouts.
Being able to breathe from either side is a good skill to have because you may find you want to switch sides for various reasons:
- Breathe to the side of you that has less glare from the sun
- Breathe to the side that’s away from a lot of splashing from other athletes
- Breathe to the side that’s away from waves crashing into your face
- Breathe to the side that allows you to see and turn around buoys the easiest
Outdoor Swimming Technique
If you watch pool swimmers versus open water swimmers in the Olympics, you’ll notice the open water swimmers have a much higher stroke rate. Instead of turning their arms over 70-80 times per minute like pool swimmers, open water swimmers will turn their arms over 80-100 times a minute.
A high stroke rate will help you keep momentum as you push through waves, current, and the turbulence caused by the other swimmers near you in choppy water.
But stroke rate, or a specific OWS technique isn’t something beginner triathletes should really worry about. In fact, trying to increase your stroke rate can inadvertently create panic in beginner athletes, because their heart rate will suddenly climb.
If you want to monitor your stroke rate, you can use a pair of FORM swim goggles that display your live stroke rate. This way, you'll be able to balance a nice high stroke rate for open water with a low enough stroke rate to keep your heart rate from climbing too high. Find this sweet spot in the pool first, then use it as a guideline in open water practice swims.
Workouts for Open Water
Creating structured open water swim workouts is difficult because there are no walls to indicate when you’ve done a length of 25 or 50, and there’s no pace clock in a lake, river, or the ocean.
Instead of trying to do OWS training by lengths or on specific intervals, you can count strokes and make up a workout. You could swim 50 fast strokes immediately into 200 easy strokes, then take a break, then do 200 faster strokes and 50 easy strokes.
Once you’ve developed comfort and want to start doing some actual open water swim workouts, you can just play around with effort levels by counting strokes and taking rest however you want. Practice running, diving, or jumping into the water and swimming fast then settling down into a steady pace.
Ultimately, these workouts should really be fun more than anything.
Triathlon Swimming on Race Day
Even if you've built comfort in the water, you might still have some race day nerves because of the hundreds of swimmers that will be around you during your race. With a few strategies you can have a great race with very little chance for anything to go wrong.
Pre-Race Swim Warmup
Local races will often allow a warm up swim. If you’re allowed to do a warm up swim before the race do this easy-to-remember warm up:
- 5 strokes fast, 30 strokes easy
- 10 strokes fast, 25 strokes easy
- 15 strokes fast, 20 strokes easy
- 20 strokes fast, 15 strokes easy
- 25 strokes fast, 10 strokes easy
- 30 strokes fast, 5 strokes easy
- 25 strokes fast, 10 strokes easy
- 20 strokes fast, 15 strokes easy
- 15 strokes fast, 20 strokes easy
- 10 strokes fast, 25 strokes easy
- 5 strokes fast, 30 strokes easy
Larger races like most half-IRONMAN (70.3) and IRONMAN events won’t let you enter the water for a warm up. Even if they won’t let you in the water, go down to the water's edge and splash some cold water on your face and down your wetsuit to reduce the shock response when you first get into the water. Race organizers and officials might yell at you, but it’s not against the rules.
BONUS TIP from two-time IRONMAN World Champion Patrick Lange: If you’re cold during race morning you’re more likely to panic in the swim because of the built up tension. If you are a cold person and the temperature on race morning will be cold, have a thermos of hot water available that you can pour down your wetsuit to stay warm.
Race Start Positioning
The start of a triathlon is often called a human washing machine, but you don’t have to be in it. Whether your race has a deep water start where you’re treading water, a beach start, or a rolling start, you can avoid all the chaos of the triathlon start line by going way off to the side and taking a direct line to the buoy from the edge of the start line.
You might think that this will make the swim much longer for you, but on most race courses it’ll only amount to a few extra meters that you’ll need to swim. That’s a small price to pay for being able to swim freely without any people around you.
Triathlon Swim Pacing
Unless you’re a top-10%-of-the-field swimmer, you don’t need to swim very hard in a race. Consider the swim just, “mandatory transportation to the start of the race.” If you think this way, you’ll swim at a very easy effort, saving yourself from any panicky moments and saving your energy for the bike and run.
Beginner athletes will also probably have a faster swim if they try to swim slow-and-easy as opposed to trying to go too fast. The reason for this is that beginners lose their technique when they start working harder, so in a lot of cases they will work much harder but go the same speed or even slower. So, swim as easy as possible then swim even a little easier.
One final note about swim pacing in a tri: A lot of coaches will tell you to kick extra hard at the end to wake your legs up. This is silly! Your legs were there for the entire swim and you don’t need a sudden heart rate spike right before you stand up out of the water. Just keep swimmingly easily all the way to the end of the swim.
Pool Swimming Workouts to Prepare for Outdoor Swimming
While a lot of triathletes join masters swimming clubs, if you really want to prepare for open water swimming in the pool you need to do triathlon-specific swim workouts like the ones in our app's training plans. Masters workouts are built for general swimming, not for the needs of open water age group triathlon swimmers.
The specific skills we like to build with our athletes are the skills they’ll need on race day. Here are the three most important:
- Deck Ups: Being able to stand up immediately after swimming without a massive heart rate surge or a head rush.
- Sighting: We build a lot of sighting into our pool workouts so athletes are comfortable with a sighting head turn before they even get into open water.
- Surges & Settles: Even if you’re trying to pace your OWS evenly and calmly, there will be moments where your heart rate spikes and you’ll need to bring it down while continuing to swim. A lot of our training plan workouts have swim sets where you swim fast at the start then settle down into a steadier pace without resting in between. Here’s an example workout with surges and settles:
Below is an example of a swim workout from our triathlon training plans that prepares triathletes specifically for the needs of open water triathlon swimming. Notice the deck ups and sighting in the workout.
This article provides a system that thousands of people have used to get over their fear of swimming in open water. But we’ve made this article as brief as possible so if you want more detail on these concepts check out our 4.6/5 star rated book Triathlon Swimming Foundations.
If you want all the swim workouts, at the right time of year to prepare you to reach your triathlon race goals, check out our app. It’s the only app in the world with personalized training plans designed specifically for ordinary people who want to accomplish something extraordinary in endurance sports; you can train for unlimited events all for as low as $14.99/month.
If you want a personalized triathlon training plan, running race training plan, duathlon training plan, cycling event training plan, or swimrun training plan, check out the MOTTIV app. MOTTIV is the only app in the world with personalized training plans designed specifically to help ordinary people accomplish something extraordinary in endurance sports.