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Triathlon And Open Water Swimming - 5 Tips

techniques to achieve your best performance on race day

Swimming in the open-water (river, lake or ocean) can be very different to swimming in the clear waters of your local swimming pool. Besides the technical adjustments that you need to make to your stroke technique (which we will discuss shortly), the biggest factor for most people is adjusting to this strange environment and overcoming the fear and anxiety that it often represents. By following our 5 simple tips below, you can master the transition of converting your efficient pool stroke into an effective open-water stroke:

1. Get used to wearing your wetsuit.

In most races you will have the option of wearing a wetsuit, particularly in the northern hemisphere. But many triathletes feel that whilst they love the buoyancy, swimming in it just feels plain 'weird'.

Complaints of heavy arms and shoulders are common. The reasons for these problems boil down to one of two things:

- the fit of your wetsuit / how you put it on

- the technique that you use when swimming in your suit

Getting your suit fitted for you is absolutely essential and we'd always recommend trying a suit on first before buying it; you're just hitting and hoping with an online purchase.


Even with the right fitting suit, many people hurry to put their suit on before a race and so fail to put it on properly. Make sure you pull the suit as high up into your crotch as possible and get a partner to 'shoe-horn' your shoulders in by pulling the suit on around your upper back. Watch the video clip on the right of Paul Newsome helping Sandy to do this.

Once on, a little bit of water down the neck of the suit will both prepare you for the shock of the cold and also provide a little bit of lubrication between you and the suit.


Our DVD Boxset has a whole disk full of methods devoted to improving your open water swimming.

The wetsuit inevitably constrains your stroke technique somewhat. Try adapting your stroke to combat this - don't aim for a really high elbow recovery as you'll simply fatigue your shoulders by working against the material of the suit. Instead, adopt a slightly straighter arm recovery technique and swing your arms over the top. Make an effort not to force this movement…work with the suit, not against it.

If you are someone with good natural buoyancy and feel your legs/feet are too high and unbalanced in a suit then you try raising your head slightly when you swim and looking slightly further forward. This will help bring your legs down a touch and give you better balance with the suit on. This problem is more common with women as they carry their buoyancy lower down their body.

2. Overcome Anxiety

The most important aspect of the freestyle stroke technique is breathing. Pure and simple. If your breathing technique is not efficient in the pool, then you will also struggle in the open-water.

Be 'selfish' before and during the swim. Focus on your body and your breathing.

If you do struggle with your breathing and relaxation in the pool, don't see this as stopping you swimming in open water. Instead. see it as a prompt for improving your breathing.

Anxiety in open-water is normally caused by extrinsic factors in the watery environment around you - depth, cold, not being able to see far (if at all!) and having other swimmers in close proximity to you. All of these factors lead to the same physical response - holding your breath.

Holding your breath immediately increases the anxiety further, things start to feel out of control and you may even feel a sense of panic. For many triathletes, their race is off to a very bad start - or even finishes there and then.

Here's how to make all the difference: Focus on intrinsic factors that you can control, for instance breathing, hand entry and smooth strokes. We call focusing on things you can control "being a selfish swimmer"! Always remember, the most important factor you can control is remembering to exhale into the water when you start to swim. Great swimming always starts with exhaling into the water.

So, down at the triathlon race start, become a 'selfish swimmer'. Block out everything that's happening around you - all those things can take care of themselves. Instead, just focus on you and your body and your breathing technique.

One last tip on anxiety - if you do start to panic during the race then just pause or flip over onto your back for a few seconds. Take a few deep easy breaths, recompose yourself and keep those deep easy breaths going when you start swimming again.

Everyone feels some anxiety in open water, even great swimmers - it's normal. So believe in yourself, you can beat it.

3. Swim Straight

In tip 3 we're going to look at sighting technique to navigate accurately around the swim course. No matter how good your sighting technique, it always costs energy or speed to sight whilst swimming. This is because when you lift your head, your bum and legs want to sink.

We heard an interesting point from another coach on this topic, suggesting that if you know you can't swim very straight naturally, simply sight more frequently. This is a flawed solution for two reasons - 1) sighting creates extra drag and slows you down and 2) if you're not swimming straight you are wasting lots of energy (and speed) constant changing direction on and off course.


Breathing to one side in training can cause problems like cross-overs. This will cause Mary to veer off to the right.

To swim straight you need a symmetrical stroke and the natural way to become symmetrical is with bilateral breathing. Maybe that's not what you wanted to hear if you find bilateral a challenge but that's the truth. Spend time developing your bilateral breathing in the pool and it will have a massive benefit on your speed in open-water.

Helping people overcome the challenge of bilateral breathing is one of our specialities! Start your journey to faster, more symmetrical swimming with the advice on our bilateral breathing page. You'll see there that the key to bilateral breathing is smooth, constant exhalation into the water. Doing the natural thing and holding on your breath is very inefficient and builds up lots of CO2 in your lungs and blood stream. Did you know that it's the build up of this CO2, not the lack of oxygen, that makes you desperate for air and causes the feelings of anxiety and panic?

You can find out more about how to get rid of this CO2 and enjoy more relaxed swimming on our swimming exhalation page.

Funnily enough, that same coach's solution to the sensation of running out of air was to inhale more often - to one side every two strokes. Of course, only ever breathing to one side creates a lop-sided stroke, which causes you to swim off course and forces you to sight more often...

We say step out of the viscous circle. Focus on exhaling into the water. Crack bilateral breathing (it's easy when you get the hang of it). Develop a more symmetrical stroke technique. You'll swim straighter, faster and be more relaxed doing it.

4. Master the Art of Sighting


When sighting, raise your head as little as possible to see ahead.

Sighting - lifting your eyes out of the water to see where you are going - is very important to navigate accurately around a swim course.

You may think that sighting is as simple as lifting your head to look forward and see where you are going but it needs a great deal of skill and technique to do it well. The world's best triathletes and open-water swimmers can sight without disrupting the rhythm of their stroke or their body position in the water, and this is key.

Many age group triathletes try to kill two birds with one stone by sighting forward and lifting their head high enough to breathe forward as well. This is poor technique as lifting your head high enough to breathe will cause your bum and legs to drop - causing a lot of drag.

Here's the correct technique: Time your sighting just before you're going to take a breath. So if you're about to breathe to your left, lift your eyes out of the water just before by pressing down lightly on the water with your lead arm (in this case it'll be your left). Only lift up enough to get your eyes just out of the water. Then turn your head to the left to breathe, as you do so, letting it drop down into the water to a normal position.

By keeping a low head position when sighting and then breathing to the side you can keep normal body rotation in your stroke. This helps keep the rhythm of your stroke going and your speed up. See the video on the right of Ceinwen doing just this.

open water sighting
Gun open water swimmer Ceinwen sights with a low head just before turning her head to breathe - great technique.

The sight-turn-breathe technique is very quick - it should be a fluid, rhythmic part of the stroke as opposed to 3 separate movements. There's a good chance you won't see exactly where you need to be going with one look forward - but don't panic if you don't see much first time. Over several strokes build up a picture in your mind of what you are looking at and where you are going. It will gradually become clearer and clearer as you progress forward. It does depend on water conditions and visibility but normally you'd look to sight about every 9 strokes.

Do your homework in advance of the race and know the layout of the course. Most importantly, be familiar with large immovable objects on the horizon to sight and know how they line up with the course buoys round the course. For instance, the first buoy may be 500m from the start and it's unlikely you'll be able to see it in the melee of the race start. So, knowing a large tree or building on the horizon and where it lines up with the first buoy will help enormously. Sight on it instead of the buoy and you'll hit the target in no time.

Make no mistake, efficient sighting technique and the ability to swim straight can make a huge difference to your swim time. In a race no-one wants to swim any further than they have to!

5. Draft Better

Drafting is swimming directly behind, or to the side of and behind, another swimmer. Studies show this saves 18 to 25% of the energy expenditure of swimming. In a race it makes perfect sense to capitalize on this source of free speed.

When it comes to drafting technique, once again practise makes perfect. If you want to become good at drafting then you need to devote training time to it. Look at drafting either as a way of swimming faster than normal by sitting on the toes of someone faster than yourself. Or, by swimming behind someone of the same speed as you, leave yourself super-fresh for the bike and run.

Effective drafting can be done in one of two ways:

1) Directly behind someone so that you are almost touching their toes.

This is the traditional way of drafting. It requires a bit of 'sneaky' technique, get too close and tap their toes and you might get a foot in your face as feedback.

Or you could slow them down by disrupting their rhythm or even sinking their legs with the contact.

When you are drafting someone nicely in a race it sometimes feels too easy. But be careful, pull out and try and overtake them and you might notice how much benefit you were getting from the draft. With experience you will be able to judge this but it's often better to sit in there, take it easy, and benefit from feeling fresh and fruity on the bike and run.

2) Swimming to the side of someone but very close.

You'll be slightly behind so your head is in line with their chest. Youget a drafting benefit because you are still swimming in their wake which extends to the side of them. This technique requires much more skill but can be even more effective than swimming behind. This is because the biggest part of your body - your torso - is getting much closer to their body which is making the hole in the water.

We recommend you practise this with a partner before races. You need to be as close as possible to them so that when you breathe your head is by their chest. We recommend breathing to one side and towards them so you can keep a close eye on things. You need to time your stroke with theirs so that you avoid clashing arms.

Get this technique right and you'll be zooming along with little effort.

Round Up

Follow these 5 Tips for effective open-water swimming technique and you'll be soon on your way to a new PB. We hope they'll help you enjoy open water more - it's a great place to swim when you're used to it!

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