How to mentally prepare for an open water swim |

Open Water 101 For Beginner Triathletes


Open Water 101 For Beginner Triathletes |

Swimming is my weakest sport. In fact, I actually avoided doing a triathlon for many years because I didn’t think I was a strong swimmer. But I decided to face my fears, dive in and conquer the swim. And boy and I glad I did! Along the way, I’ve had some rough triathlon swim experiences and I still seem to get WAY too much water up my nose but I’ve come a long way and have shaved over 3 minutes off of my Sprint Triathlon swim time!

I now look forward to my swim workouts, especially the open water swims! In fact, Jess and I went on vacation last week and I found a lake to stop at for an open water swim on our drive home. I am living proof that a self proclaimed non-swimmer can do a triathlon and can learn to like, or even love the swim.

Just a little bit of pre-race practice in open water will build much-needed confidence for beginner triathlon swimming.



After swimming thousands of laps, doing hundreds of open water swims and overcoming many swimming challenges, I came up with a few things that will help decrease your anxiety of open water swimming on race day.

The idea here is to be prepared by knowing what to expect on race day, and then to get comfortable with everything coming your way. It’s more simple that you might think, and requires just a few simple steps.


Practice In Deep And Choppy Water

This first thing that can be intimidating is swimming in deep water, or in something other than a pool because the biggest difference is that you cant stop and stand up or rest on the edge of the pool.

So the first thing to practice is swimming in deeper water. Start by going deeper and deeper into the open water until you feel more comfortable swimming without the aid of the bottom of the pool. This will help you build your endurance and confidence in open water. If you feel tired and need to rest, tread water or float on your back for a few seconds.

Also, Try not to focus on the fact that you’re swimming in deeper water. This can be a huge mental challenge, but just remember to relax and remind yourself that swimming in deeper water is the same as swimming in shallow water.


Practice Swimming Around Buoys

The next thing that might be new about an open water swim is rounding buoys. Other than turning around at the end of the pool, I had never practiced swimming around a buoy and it was quite a challenge for me during my first triathlon.

To practice this, you’ll take some time swimming into deeper water and then cutting corners around the buoys. It’s not hard, but you’ll find that it takes a new technique so make sure you try it ahead of time.

If the open water that you’re swimming in dosen’t have a buoy, then just practice swimming in an arc, or do an out and back loop to get used to rounding a corner.

My tip here is to breathe on whatever side is facing the buoy. that way, you’ll be able to see it while you’re swimming around it and you won’t have to stop and try to find where it is. Also, don’t concentrate so much on reaching forward in your swim stroke, but take a few more frequent smaller strokes to round the bend with more precision.



What goes right along with swimming around the buoys, is getting there in the first place, so let’s talk about sighting so you can get there faster without zigzaging all over the place and wasting precious energy.

Sighting is all about rhythm – and just like anything else you’ll have to practice it until it becomes second nature.

We talk about sighting in more depth in our beginner training program, but basically you lift your head up as you’re taking a breath, get your bearings and keep on swimming. Open water swims are a great opportunity to practice this because you don’t have to sight in a pool.

Instead of turning your head up to breathe and then turning it back into the water, you’ll take your breath and then slightly lift your head out of the water with the same motion that your arm is doing. To practice this, try following your hand with your eyes as it goes over your head and back into the water. Then, once you have the motion down, focus on an object in the water or on the buoy instead of on your hand. A good rule of thumb is to sight every 4-6 strokes.

Open Water 101 For Beginner Triathletes |

Double Sighting Corrections

I came up with an idea that really helps my stay in a straight line while swimming. Here’s the scenario: I’m swimming along, I sight, and I realize I’m way off course. So I’ll correct and keep swimming. But just imagine what it looks like if I over correct – or under correct for that matter. The solution is to double sight if you have to make a big correction. It looks like this. Sight, correct, and then sight again to lock in your sights and make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

Sighting To The Side

One additional benefit of bilateral breathing is that you can pick up waypoints on both sides of your body. For example, during our last triathlon there was a bridge on one side and the downtown city scape on the other. Select a few objects that are on the shore and practice sighting to the side, using them as your guide.


Clearing your goggles

My luck with goggles and getting a good fit hasn’t always been on my side. Some days they work great. Sometimes not so much. So just in case they decide to become leaky or fog up on race day, I started practicing clearing my goggles while swimming, just in case.

We can take a lesson from scuba diving where you always want to be prepared for the worst case scenario, and that’s why divers practice these things like this before they go 60 feet down. Likewise, practice clearing your goggle while in the water before race day.

This happened to Jess during our last triathlon and her goggles got so foggy that she couldn’t see the swim exit. So she had to stop for a second, tread water and dunk them in the water to unfog them quickly. If you can, try to keep kicking and moving forward, kinda like the swim drill when you propel yourself forward using on only your legs. It’s always better to keep moving forward and to multi-task as much as you can. But if you have to stop, that’s ok too.

Open Water 101 For Beginner Triathletes |

The Swim Entry

Sometimes you begin the race on land and run into the water. Other times, you jump off a dock into the water. Whether the case, it’s always a good idea to give practice your swim entry a few times.

Practice running from the beach into the water and start swimming. Jess wrote a great post about the best places to position yourself during the swim start so that you are able to swim in less crowded areas. Also, try our swim/run brick stack workout to help you get the feel for this.

Run with high knees and start swimming as soon as the water reaches your knee or thigh. It may seem like it’s too shallow to swim, but you’ll move faster swimming in shallow water than you will trying to “run” in shallow water.

Open Water 101 For Beginner Triathletes |

Exit and running to T1

Remember that game where you and your friends put your forehead onto a baseball bat and then spin circles around it? Then, once you’re sufficiently dizzy, you race to first base like a bunch of crazy drunks? Well, that’s kind of how you’ll feel after getting out of the water and running to T1!

Just like entering the water, run with high knees and try our swim, run brick stack workout to get the hang of this.

Also, make sure you keep swimming until you touch the bottom with your hand while swimming. Don’t just stand up and run the second you think you are able to stand. It’s much easier to swim than to try to run in waist or hip deep water. Plus, the bottom always creeps Jess out so the less she has to feel it, the better.
As far as warming up before your race, check out this post for some great stretches and warm-ups that will get the blood flowing to your arms and your body ready to swim. This is a perfect warm up for those times when you’re not allowed to warm up in the water before your race.

Open Water 101 For Beginner Triathletes

Practicing these things will help build your confidence for race day and you’ll be swimming like a fish in no time!

Now go out there and BE AWESOME!


Posted by Trainer +Davey Anderson 

About Author

Trainer DaveyTrainer Davey is an Orange County personal trainer at heart, but has since moved to Nashville and taken on the new challenge of triathlon training. Of course, he misses his home of Surf City...but Music City ain't so bad either!View all posts by Trainer Davey →

  1. Wornout Soles
    Wornout Soles09-04-2013

    Great post! This is my second year doing tri’s, and I wish I had found this post last year. I love the tip about bi-lateral breathing and siting to the shore side. Can’t wait to try that one!

    • Trainer Davey
      Trainer Davey09-05-2013

      Hey thanks! I hope others find these open water swimming tips helpful too…before their first race day!

      Great job, and keep “tri-ing!”

  2. llh

    Another tip for learning to enjoy open water swimming – find a nice CLEAN lake to practice in so that the pure enjoyment of being out in the water can be experienced! The 1st weekend I practiced this spring was in a ‘green’ lake and it was so gross. Then the day before my June tri, I went to this nice clean gorgeous lake and I decided I could actually enjoy swimming in a lake!

    • Jess Anderson
      Jess Anderson09-06-2013

      GREAT idea! An open water swim in a beautiful CLEAN lake sounds awesome! Thanks for the tip!