This weekend, I had an opportunity for an open water swim practice, so I took it. In general, I think every triathlete should get in as much OWS practice as possible. Swimming in open water is incredibly different from swimming in the pool. Obviously, pool work is important too, but I’ve seen so many triathletes end up panicking during their races because they haven’t spent much time in open water.
There are some clear differences between open water swimming and pool swimming:
- pools have lines on the bottom to follow
- pool water is typically much clearer
- no plant matter attacking from the deep
- pool lanes are short, maybe a max of 50m before you get to turn around and push off the wall
But in addition, a true open water experience also involves a big variable – other swimmers. In the pool, you might be splitting a lane or circle swimming, but there’s generally a lot of consideration for the shared space (except for you, annoying butterfly guy). However, in open water, it’s every man for himself.
For the most part, I don’t think the “contact” in open water is intentional. I don’t intend to run into people while I’m swimming. But it happens. Someone slower ends up in front of you. Someone faster ends up behind you. People aren’t swimming straight lines. Current pushes you into someone else.
If you’re freaked about contact with other swimmers, the advice is typically to swim wide. The further you are from the straight lines between buoys, the fewer swimmers you will encounter. Of course, you will also be making your swim that much longer. So the best thing to do is practice. What will you do if you find you’re running into someone?
Some people will tell you “Well, just swim over them.” That’s not really my style, plus it’s rare that I’m coming upon someone who is that much slower than me that I’m able to pass them that quickly. I just try to alter my course a bit to get around. I’ve gotten stuck behind someone who is swimming in a zig-zag motion and had to really go wide to get past. I’ve also been touched and clobbered by other swimmers. It happens and you just deal with it.
However, the first time you encounter this, it’s definitely jarring. So the best advice I have is to go to an open water practice. If there isn’t an organized practice around you, get together a group of friends and get in the water. No open water for you to practice? Then get in a pool lane with six of your friends and get swimming. Or find a bunch of kids who are willing to hit you with pool noodles while you swim laps. I’m sure they’ll be happy to do so.
The more you get used to open water swimming, the easier it gets. It’s probably the part of triathlon that gets the least amount of practice but has the best chance of derailing your race. So get out there and practice.