Open Water Season Is…OPEN

Group swimming in the open water
May 11, 2023

Susan Williams


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For those not living in the summer hemisphere, or close to it, we are dusting off our wetsuits and getting ready to jump in the open water. After many months of following the black line, usually indoors, the freedom of getting outside is so exciting. And not only a break in the winter routine, but there are so many different workouts we can do that are more tri-related without the lane lines. Also, we now have the opportunity to refine our open water skills we will need for our races. Below are some ideas for open water skills to practice with a few ideas of workouts/sets you can do. And remember, if you are training for a triathlon, the more people the merrier for your open water workout so you can simulate the bumps and chop of a typical triathlon start.

Specific skills to practice in the open water are sighting, race starts, buoy turns and drafting. Drafting practice can also be practiced in the pool, so we’ll focus on the first 3. For sighting, 2 main areas to focus on are what to sight with and how to be most efficient when sighting. The best thing you can find to sight with would be large and non-moving, many times not in the water. As you are looking at your target (usually a buoy), look beyond that to something obvious on shore that is lined up with your target that you can find quickly when you are sighting. Buildings and taller trees usually will stand out and work well. This will minimize the time you need to spend with your head up looking and maximize the time you are looking down, a much more body position. When you are sighting, lift your head as little as possible to lock in on where you are headed. For very calm water, you’ll only need to lift your head to goggle level (crocodile eyes). For chopper water, you may need to take a few breaststrokes to get a good look. That’s ok, be sure to get your head back down as soon as you look and correct your course.

As any triathlete knows, race starts can be chaotic and stressful. The more we can practice this and be comfortable with so many people swimming over us, the better. Grab a group of swimmers and practice starts together, either starting on the beach, in shallow water or in deep water. Pick a target to aim for and then have everyone start with 30 strokes FAST, 30-50 strokes race pace then stop. It is sometimes interesting to see where some swimmers end up! Swim easy back to start and repeat. Once you have a feel for whether you veer off to right, left or stay straight it will give you a good idea as to which side you would like to start. Then take this knowledge with you to the races.

Buoy turns are also a good skill to practice, even better with larger groups of swimmers. Some swimmers get fancy with a corkscrew stroke, in larger numbers this may not be as helpful. The key is to keep moving and not get bogged down in a mob right at the buoy. Sometimes going wide is the best bet, even if you end up swimming a few extra yards.

These are some of the main open water skills that you can practice. If you have a few other swimmers with you of about the skill level, do some drafting practice where each swimmer takes so many strokes in the front of the line and sights, pulls over, then drops to the back of the line while the second swimmer takes the lead. Practice some swimming with your eyes closed (not if it is crowded) and see which direction you tend to drift. Or simulate your own race by marking out a course that you can swim throughout the season to gauge progress.

Open water swimming is a fun break from the pool, enjoy!

Coach Susan Williams knows that every athlete is endowed with different abilities and skills, and every athlete will have unique goals. She was inspired by the coach she had as she trained for the Olympics and transformed that experience into her coaching philosophy.  Set goals, plan steps on how to reach this goal, give your best effort with every opportunity you have (keeping in mind that this doesn’t mean you have to kill it every day at every practice!), and find success in knowing you gave it your all.

Coach Susan is an Olympic Bronze Medalist, USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer.

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