Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ironwoman Wednesday: Open Water Swim

It's Wednesday again and time for another Ironwoman Wednesday post! If you missed the first post last week, Ironwoman Wednesday is a weekly linkup on a variety of triathlon-related topics (that will be announced the week before). It is similar to Tri Talk Tuesday that a few other bloggers started, but the more people talking about triathlon the better!

Gabi at Lean Green Island Girl, Michelle at Ironwoman Strong and I are all training for Ironman Louisville. It is really exciting (and encouraging) to be sharing this journey with these two amazing women!

Last week's topic was focused on swimming in general, but this week I am going to be talking about my experiences, and tips, with open water swimming or OWS.

 This feels like it was forever ago, first sprint tri

Our first sprint triathlon was not my first experience with OWS. I mentioned that our swim team would take a yearly trip to Florida and a few years we participated in an OWS race. I can't even remember the distances now but I do remember my first experience with OWS.

I wear contacts and when I was younger I wore glasses. I did not always have prescription goggles (I later got some and now just swim with my contacts in), and during my first OWS experience I had a really hard time sighting. I remember being last because I veered so far off course (because I couldn't see the buoys in the distance) and a volunteer in a kayak trying to help get me back on track.

My next OWS experience was better, and as a triathlete my strong swimming background and prior experiences with OWS have helped me immensely. One of my goals this year is to race in an OWS event, hopefully I can find the time to do so!

Most new triathletes panic in the water because they do not have a swimming background.  That is completely understandable but there are a few ways that you can try to help calm your nerves before your first race.

 OWS in Maine

Practice, practice, practice! This is so important. You really don't want race day to be the first time that you get in open water. You may have successfully completed all of your training in a pool, but that doesn't prepare you for the chaos that is the mass swim start. Unfortunately, living in Western New York, Mike and I have sometimes been unable to get into open water before our first triathlon of the year (however, we do not panic in the water and it has worked out alright). If you are feeling nervous, try to go practice in open water before race day.

Never swim alone. I know that there are people who do, but you should never swim in open water alone. Even if you are a strong swimmer (Mike makes fun of me because I have freaked out in rough waters a few times), you never know what can happen. Swim with a friend, wear a BRIGHT swim cap or at least have a spotter on shore watching out for you.

Practice sighting. Swimming in a pool is luxurious because you are spoiled by knowing how far you have to go before doing a flip turn, and you have the lines at the bottom of the pool to keep you on track. Often during OWS, you can't even see your hands right in front of you. Every race course is different but you will always have buoys to guide you through the open water. Keep those buoys on your left (or right if you are going in the other direction) and try to stay as close to them as possible. You will need to lift your head out of the water every so often to make sure that you are staying on track (hence my story at the beginning of this post). If you are swimming into the sun, try to follow the bubbles in front of you or the splashes from other swimmers' kicks. It is important to try to stay in as straight a line as possible so that you don't lose too much time.

 The start of HITS 70.3 tri relay, I was the swimmer

Race day tips. Get in the water beforehand to test the temperature. Unless you are doing a running start, you will usually have the opportunity to do this right before the race and/or your wave starts (most triathlons are broken up into waves based on gender/age group). Sometimes the water is freezing and other times it feels like bath water, but you want to give your body enough time to get acclimated before you start swimming. Pick a position based on your comfort level and your abilities as a swimmer. I am always in the front of the pack because I am a strong swimmer. If you are nervous you can stay closer to the back of the pack, this will also help you avoid any unwanted kicks/collisions with other swimmers, and you can follow other swimmers this way (but make sure you are still sighting so you don't get off course). Some triathlons let you start behind your age group, to avoid the mass start, but your time will start when your age group's wave starts. Also, unlike on the bike, you are allowed to "draft" during the swim. Find someone and get in his/her wake!

 Exiting the water at HITS

A final tip for race day, keep swimming for as long as possible. If your start is shallow, run for a little bit but as soon as you are able start swimming. When you are close to shore, don't automatically jump up and start running. I will swim until my hand touches the bottom twice and then I jump up and begin my run to transition. You will get through the water faster by swimming. 

Breathing. Of course you need to breathe during the race, but there is a strategy to it as well. I tend to breathe to the right, but I also know how to bilaterally breathe (breathe to both sides). Bilateral breathing comes in handy with sighting and keeping those buoys to the appropriate side of your body. Most triathlons I have done have you keep the buoys to your left, which means that breathing to the right doesn't really help me. You can practice bilateral breathing in the pool to make sure that you feel comfortable with this on race day.

 I did wear my wetsuit at Musselman 70.3

And a word about wetsuits. We did our first three triathlons without wetsuits and were fine. The water temperature for two of those triathlons (one sprint and one Olympic distance) was around 62 degrees. It was cold! Wetsuits do come in handy for swimmers who are not as confident in their abilities because they increase buoyancy in the water (as well as keep you warmer than going sans-wetsuit).

USAT rules state that any participant may wear a wetsuit when the water temperature is 78 degrees F or less without penalty. Age group triathletes may wear wetsuits when the water temperature is greater than 78 degrees and less than 84 degrees, however, anyone who chooses to do so would not be eligible for prizes and/or awards. When the water temperature is 84 degrees and above, no one is allowed to wear wetsuits.

 So excited for some OWS, Mike is not

Hopefully, you find OWS just as exciting and fun as I do. If you are nervous, just take it slow at first and trust in your abilities. Remember swimming accounts for a small percentage of your race, so if you have to take a little bit longer to feel comfortable in the water, do it!

Next week's topic is: bike.


  1. These are such great tips! I used to never warm up, but now I know the importance even if I can't get in the water and whenever I can get in the water I definitely do. My worst OWS was my first OWS where the water was 53 degrees! Soooo cold. Had to dip my head in repeatedly and get completed acclimated. Louisville will be so different! Like a warm bath!

  2. I am never really planning on doing a tri, Jamie, but you certainly gave alot of good tips and know your subject well!

  3. Really good advice. The swim part is what worries me most about a tri.

  4. I LOVE open-water swimming. There's a lake in my hometown, so my summers were filled with swimming, boating, and general goofing off in the water--which also means weeds, fish, etc. don't bother me. It's been a huge advantage since joining the triathlon world. And practicing OWS cannot be stressed enough. Like you said, it's totally different than swimming laps in a pool.

  5. I'm alllll about the bilateral breathing!!! Years of being forced to do it have made it natural...

  6. I learned the hard way how important it is to get in and get acclimated. Still trying to figure out what to do with an upcoming race with no warmup option.

    I did my first wetsuit race this year and I loved it. I don't know why I avoided it for so long. Now I have to decide whether or not to wear the wetsuit for an upcoming sprint. I'm not sure it worth it, but it's so comfy in that cold water!