Swimming Without Lanes: Braving the Open Water

Singapore 70.3 2008 (41)

Swimming Without Lanes:  Braving the Open Water

By Ani Karina S. de Leon


I blame the Hollywood film Jaws for generations of petrified individuals who don’t even want to venture beyond waist-deep water while swimming in the ocean.  Make a quick survey and people will most likely state sharks as the reason for them not wanting to be more adventurous in the water and in the process enjoy a myriad of water sports and other delightful aquatic activities.  This is such a shame, because of all the open water racing I’ve done locally and internationally, I have yet to hear about a shark attack or even a shark sighting.

Having debunked that myth, I am not here to declare either that open water swimming doesn’t come with its own set of challenges, but armed with the proper tools and know-how, it can be one of the most fun things that you can learn to do.



Saltwater, Fresh-water, Pool water

Some important tips: Saltwater is denser then pool water or fresh-water, so you are actually more buoyant when you are in the ocean.  In other words, your body floats more easily, which is always a good thing!  Swimming in the ocean however, requires you to use a different technique, as the water is denser and thus will give you more resistance when you pull.  It can also be more turbulent, wavy, and sometimes extremely cold or warm, but for me that is all part of the package.  In general, it is a good idea to know a bit more about the environment you are swimming in and to try it out at least once before your event, ideally at around the same time as your race start.

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The Waves Beckon 


Dive right into a systematic plan of action with the following pointers:


  1. Navigation.   Incorporate sighting into your swimming regimen, as you will definitely need to do a lot of it outside the pool.  Sighting doesn’t necessarily men lifting your full head and upper torso out of the water, as long as the waves aren’t strong and the water is calm, you can afford to lift it up only until the level of your eyes, make a quick sight of your destination point, and then bring your head back down again.  Every time you tilt your upper body higher means your lower body will sink, which directly translates to kicking more.  Find a good sighting rhythm, say, every 6 strokes, and practice to be comfortable with it.  As a group you can position turn around points like buoys or small rafts and bunch up together as if in a race.  This can also make your workouts less monotonous.
  2. Equipment. Sunscreen is a must, no if or buts about it.  Find a good swimsuit that will not cause too much drag, and this would mean it fits you snugly, nothing too loose for water to pass through as this will slow you down.  For training it is a good investment to purchase a durable fabric such as Speedo’s Endurance line, as this will last you for years if you take care of it properly.  For racing, a thinner and smoother surfaced suit like the Fastskin line is better as this will ensure better hydrodynamics.  Figuring out the pair of goggles that best suits you is priceless as you cannot afford them to come loose when someone kicks you in the face and you are in the middle of your race.  Different facial types prefer specific shapes and sized goggles, so don’t be afraid to try everything out in the store.  It is best to test them in the water of course, to make certain there are no leaks.  A lot of people also benefit from using lubricants like petroleum jelly to prevent chafing on certain friction points, the armpits for example.
  3. Entering and Exiting the Water.  A lot of races start off from the beach, and this requires running from sand to gradually or rapidly increasing water levels.  How does one determine at which point to stop running and where to start swimming?  The rule of thumb is that if the water is still below your knees it is still better to run, and when it is in between your knees and your waist you can start dolphining, and then when it is at torso level you can already start swimming.  Dolphining is a very very fast and efficient way to go through the water, and mastering little things like this could make or break your goal to stay with the pack initially.  To dolphin means to jump in a forward arch like movement the way real dolphins do it.  To exit the water, just reverse the steps above, so from swimming, you dolphin, then you start running in the water and onto the beach.  I must warn you that the change in body position from swimming (which is horizontal) to running (which is vertical) creates a sudden rush of blood in your system and might throw you off balance if you are not expecting it.
  4. Drafting.  Whether we like it or not, we are going to have to swim around people in a race, and a lot of times it could be frustrating not being able to settle into a pace that we prefer.  Eventually though, after the initial riot of the mass start, you will end up finding a couple of people swimming just a little bit faster than you and it is best to stay on their feet if your goal is to save energy.  The ideal spot is directly behind a person, although a significant advantage could still be gained from staying just bit behind where their arms finish off to the side.  Drafting behind people slower than you would make no sense, so always be aware if you are being smart or just being lazy.
  5. Group Training.  Pool swimmers used to having a nice still lane of their own can be momentarily thrown aback when faced with a mass open water start of, say, maybe five hundred people, and this too, can be prevented.  A couple of simulated workouts with friends will help familiarize you with the intensity of the actual race start.  Even if there are only five of you, for example, just make sure to stay in one lane and try to practice swimming together.  Do a couple of laps at high intensity and a couple of laps at slower paces, just to get the hang of it. 

1 Comment

Filed under Articles, Coaching and Training, Swimming

One response to “Swimming Without Lanes: Braving the Open Water

  1. ian

    great read… This is really helpful to beginners like me… and open water scaredy-cat..

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