Open Water Swimming for Beginners

It looks as if open water swimming season could be coming early seeing how it was in the mid-70s all of last week in Atlanta. That being said maybe now would be a good time to give you an intro to the basics. Just a heads up, all of the links in this post are to more in depth posts I’ve written on the particular topics mentioned.

The most important thing you should know is open water swimming alone is not one of the best ideas. First of all, when you swim alone, no one really knows your exact whereabouts. You may have told someone, “I’m going to the cove at the lake today,” but that may be the best they can do to help search for you if you don’t turn up. Even worse, how long would it take before they thought, “Something is wrong, we need to find him?” By that point it may be too late.

So remember, you’re better off doing open water swimming with a group or at the very least a buddy who can get help quick. The triathlon community usually has organized swims, so it’s a place to start if you want to do it with a bunch of people.

What about watercraft? Watercraft are the main reason we wear neon caps in the water. We need to be seen easily so we are not run over. My personal preference is a neon green cap because the human eye picks up more shades of green than any other color. Just remember you want to be seen.

If you’re really uncomfortable about swimming in open water and worry about being seen despite the colored cap, there are special trailing safety buoys you can buy. New Wave Swim Buoy is one of the safety buoy products I recommend frequently and people really like them. With those you can actually store things inside of them, which comes in handy for a point-to-point swim or if you have no better place to store valuable things on shore. For reference, a point-to-point swim is where the end of the race is not the same place as the start, making it two different points.

Next, let’s talk about goggles. I can’t recommend a pair of goggles for you because it’s a personal thing; you’ll figure it out through trial and error. I use the same style for outdoor swimming as I do for indoor; I just use a much deeper tint to the lenses for open water swimming whenever it’s a sunny day. However, if you use dark tint goggles on a day with heavy overcast it’s going to seem extremely dark out (with Black Cherry lenses + overcast it feels like a cataclysmic event is about to go down).

Many people worry about your goggles fogging up when they swim – don’t worry, there are solutions to this problem. The most common ones are: spit, leave a little bit of water in the lens to slosh around like windshield wipers do, anti-fog solutions or shampoo. My personal preference is the shampoo method. To briefly summarize, you take a dab the size of a button, rub it in each lens, splash the goggles till completely dissolved. You’ll be good to go for hours!

I’ve already written about Wetsuit 101, so if you’re not up to reading through that I’ll give you the super condensed version. Wetsuits serve two purposes: they keep you warm in cold water and give you extra buoyancy. Before purchasing a wetsuit, make sure you’ve tried it on. You’ll have to make a choice whether to go sleeved or sleeveless. The sleeves will give you a tad more buoyancy, but they’ll leave you feeling a little more restricted in your upper arms and shoulders. Before using your wetsuit, apply Body Glide to the back of your neck. You may have to apply it to your under arms and other areas you have problems with chafing. Use a couple of plastic grocery bags on your feet to help get the wetsuit on.

When the water is super cold, a neoprene cap and the booties come in handy. They do a really good job keeping your feet and head warm. Keep in mind how much heat you lose through your head! The neoprene cap fits under your regular swimming cap pretty well too.

There is a point to stop swimming with a wetsuit. If you’re really sensitive and like to be warm, then 80 degrees Fahrenheit is where you’ll probably shed it. I get overheated easily so I’ll stop wearing it around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s a triathlon, it’s legal to wear one up to 83.9 degrees Fahrenheit (and that feels extremely hot).

Time to get down to the swim itself. Unless you’re in parts of the ocean that are crystal clear, you’re going to have diminished visibility. In some cases you’ll barely have any. Don’t freak out. Continue to breath as you normally would. Now you have to integrate sighting for buoys into your stroke. Check out this video for a better visual of the three different ways of sighting (the most comfortable way for me is the third option demonstrated by Chloe Sutton). Don’t go more than 15 strokes without sighting for the buoy. If you’re in a race or with a big group of people…it’s a Chinese fire drill. People will be coming from almost every direction so don’t be surprised if you get whacked in the face by a foot or a hand. If it’s a race and you have a chance to self-seed…do so accordingly. If you’re not the fastest person out there, you are much better off hanging out in the back. No one will run you over from behind. If you’re swimming in a river don’t rely on there being a current. We put dams in rivers, so if there’s no rain, there’s no reason to let out water thus no current. To help control your pace, think of a song with a slow, steady beat. It’s helps if it’s repetitive too because it’ll allow you to settle into a nice rhythm.

This should help you get started with open water swimming, so good luck and be safe!

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