Open Water Swim Tips

Photo of someone swimming in open water
September 22, 2023

Dave Sheanin


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Based on a recent experience volunteering in a kayak at a 70.3 race, I want to share a few items that are quick and easy for every level triathlete and will result in a guaranteed (yes, GUAR-AN-TEED!!) reduction in your swim time with no additional training.

  1. Sight often!  Typically, most swimmers should be sighting every 6-8 strokes--but this will vary by experience and technique.  I saw a surprising number of swimmers headed off in the wrong direction who took 20 or 30 strokes before looking up, realizing they were off course, correcting, then repeating this pattern over and over.  These folks swam much farther than the swimmers who were able to hold a straight line.  Swimming fast in the wrong direction won’t get you to T1 quickly.  Open water speed is roughly equal parts velocity and trajectory.  
  2. Wear goggles that are appropriate to race conditions.  Clear and lightly tinted goggles are intended for indoor use.  They are not appropriate for open water on race day unless conditions are significantly dark or overcast.  Even on the cloudiest days outdoors, a lightly tinted goggle with a mirrored finish is a much better choice than an indoor goggle. I saw tons of athletes wearing clear and light blue goggles squinting into the sun as they came around the turn buoy--a large number of them swam in the wrong direction as a result.  Several had to be intercepted by paddlers and directed back on course.  You should show up to your race with at least two pair of mirrored goggles--light and dark tints.  I always have three pair--light, dark, and extra-dark.  I make a decision about which goggles to wear as close as possible to the race start based on conditions at the time (and how I expect conditions to develop during the swim).  Note that I almost always choose my extra-dark goggles for post-dawn/daylight environments, even if the course doesn’t include a segment into the sun.
  3. Wear new (or relatively new) goggles for racing.  If your goggles are scratched or fog up, they should be thrown out.  You can use defogging spray or diluted baby shampoo to act as a defogger but at some point, goggles just get too old to be effective.  If you can’t keep your goggles clear, they are of limited benefit to you on race day.  Just as I saw many athletes with their indoor goggles swimming off course, I also saw a lot of athletes stop and try to clear their goggles after swimming in the wrong direction.  Never touch the inside of your goggles with your fingers.  You can lick the insides if your fog coating has worn off.  But better yet, plan to buy several pair of goggles each season.  They typically range in price from $10-30 a pair--a small investment to be able to swim in a straight line.
  4. Wear a wetsuit that fits.  I saw a lot of back-of-the pack swimmers in particular who were in wetsuits that did not fit--mostly the suits were too large.  I know that wetsuits can feel constricting to beginners.  But in order to give you an advantage, they need to fit snugly.  A too-large suit will actually slow you down and really, is unsafe.  If you are not comfortable in a properly fitted suit, consider a textile speed suit or just swim in a swimsuit.  I know that many athletes rent or borrow equipment, especially when starting out, and I’m sympathetic to the high cost of entry into this sport.  If you can’t get yourself a suit that fits correctly AND you feel comfortable in, don’t race in a wetsuit.

Follow these tips for free (or at least, inexpensive) race day speed.

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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