Note: At this point, Ironman Canada in August 2020 is still on as scheduled. As with all the Covid-19 disruptions, we have no way to know how late summer will play out but we can remain positive, hold on to hope and continue to train as best as we can.
With gyms and pools are mostly closed, athletes have been doing a great job getting creative with dry land swimming and other outdoor workouts. As it is almost May, it’s a great time to start transitioning to open water swimming. In the Seattle area where summer is slow to build, early May is usually the first chance to get into the lakes for open water swimming.
Wait, did we say swimming? Did we say outside? In a lake??? We did!
The first rule of open water swimming is safety. So the first outings are actually not about diving in and seeing how far you can go. Instead, they are about making sure your body and brain are ready to swim in open water.
Jump on in, the water is freaking cold!
Starting Open Water Swimming
Whether you are a seasoned Ironman or an aspiring Ironman, not many people maintain open water swimming skills year round at least not here in Seattle. May 1st (or about 4 months out from your race) is a great time to start dipping your toe in that very cold water to start building open water swimming skills.
First, unpack that wetsuit! You might need to dust it off a little too. Find your swim cap and goggles. Find all the extra cold water swim gear that is stored away if you have any. This could be a neoprene cap or at least an extra swim cap, neoprene swim booties and maybe even neoprene gloves. Some may even have a swim skin suit that adds a little extra warmth under your wetsuit.
Next, put that wetsuit on. You do remember how to get a wetsuit on….. right?
Remember that your wetsuit has thoroughly dried over the winter and it will be harder to get on than it was at the end of last season. Some athletes soak their wetsuit in a bathtub for a few hours, let it dry for a day and then try to get it on. Most find even though it is a little tight to start it is doable.
Ready the Brain
Now that we are physically ready to open water swim, it's important to address the mindset for those first few open water swims. Remind yourself that it is okay to keep those first few swims very short and in fact we do recommend it. The first few swims are more about getting comfortable in the water rather than an actual swimming workout.
Wearing a wetsuit is much more constricting around your chest and shoulders than just a swimsuit in the pool. For some this can create a panicky feeling of not being able to breathe. This is a completely normal reaction. The coldness of the water can also trigger the diving reflex (aka the mammalian diving reflex/response) which is when you put your face into cold water and gasp. Again, that is normal and okay.
Panicky feelings are very common with open water swimming and they do get better and go away for the most part with practice. Don’t worry if this happens to you! To start, spend a little time in a shallow area where you can get water in your suit and your face in the water but still stand up and know you are okay. Once this is okay take a few strokes and see how you do. Stay close to shore and/or a workout buddy. Remember if you get those panicked feelings and can’t touch the ground you always have the option to roll onto your back and just breathe. We have all our athletes practice this even if they are not panicked as you never know when this feeling might be triggered from the stress of a race or different water conditions.
We are not going to go into all the details of staying safe in open water swimming but we are going to highlight a few basics we really think are important.
We do suggest reading the guidelines of the local parks and beaches where you swim. If you are interested in knowing more, there are many online resources that list safety guidelines for open water swimming. These can vary by state and type of water source.
Swimming to your ability is particularly true when we are first getting into that rather chilly water right now. The cold water makes your body work harder and this can suddenly affect you more than you think. It takes additional energy to keep your core warm on top of the exercise of swimming. Be cautious. Definitely plan to stick close to the shore. Should you get too cold, stay calm and look for your closest way out of the water even if that means you are not getting out where you started. Walking back is always ok! If you find you are out further than you thought, never forget you can roll over onto your back, look at the sky and breathe.
A Fish in Water
The more practice you can get swimming in open water, the better. There are just some things that are different than in a pool.
Open water is really the only way to practice sighting. This is important to allow you to get you from Point A to Point B faster. It can be quite entertaining for spectators to watch how those new to open water and even experienced triathletes wander all about in the water due to poor sighting skills. The goal is to become good at sighting by only bringing your eyes out of water for a split second versus bringing your whole head out and actually creating a pause in your swim. Think of a frog bringing it’s eyes just to the surface of the water. When you bring your head out of the water, your hips and legs by default will drop your hips and can interrupt all momentum of your swimming. Eyes only!
That work you’ve done in the pool to be able to breathe comfortably on both sides (bi-lateral breathing) comes into play here too. Expect that sometimes there will be wind, waves, a duck or another swimmer on the side you breathe normally. Having the ability to breathe bi-laterally is an important skill in case this happens. More than likely you will still have a side that is easier and your default and that is okay. Just keep working at developing the bi-lateral breathing skill.
Think about other drills you may have been doing in the pool and how they may apply now that you are in the open water. There are no walls in the lake to push off, remember those workouts where you turn before the wall and don’t push off? Or the days you practiced treading water? This is a great skill in open water in case you swallow water or need to just rest for a second and get your bearings.
Find the Time
Fitting in open water swimming can be a challenge. It requires driving to a location, bringing a lot of gear, getting ready including possibly warming up if you swim first thing in the morning, getting in and then once finished with your swim getting your body warm again, getting back home and onto the next part of your day. Make the effort.
A few things to keep in mind to help make that effort go a little more smoothly:
If there is weather such as wind, don’t automatically bail on your swim. Be extra cautious and consider altering the amount of time or the course you were planning to do. Getting open water swim practice in non-optimal conditions is great practice as you never know what conditions will be like for race day. The one big exception to this rule is lightning. Skip your swim if there is lightning and either plan to go a different day or fit in a dryland swim if that is the only option.
Two shorter sessions of open water swimming per week are typically better than one long session. Body balance and form are so important for the swim. As you get tired, your form can deteriorate and it’s better not to reinforce poor form. Hopefully each swim you will be able to go a little longer with good form. Pay attention to when you feel your form shift and maybe talk to your coach about how to get beyond that point. If it is difficult for you to make the time for open water swimming, once a week is better than nothing.
After a few weeks back in the open water when you have gotten more comfortable and built up some endurance think about some other aspects of triathlon you can practice. If you are swimming with others and if everyone is comfortable, practice open water swim starts both from the beach and floating. Bump into each other, swim over each other and try to draft. Rather than popping your head up to see who hit you or to say sorry the idea is to just keep your head down and just focus on swimming. In an organized event you will almost always get bumped and we want you ready to just keep swimming.
Once out of the water, you may find you are a little woozy at first. Don’t be alarmed as it can be common at first. Just sit down and expect it to pass. Expect this feeling to go away especially as you get more practice. If you find this happening all of the time make sure you are fueling and hydrating correctly.
After endless laps in a pool over the winter, prepare to be amazed by open water swimming! Remember when you are open water swimming to every now and then take a few minutes to look around and see the beauty around you. It can be amazing to be floating in the middle of a lake early in the morning with blue sky, sun, eagles swooping and gentle waves rocking you. Take a few minutes to appreciate how lucky we are to be able to swim in open water and see the world from a different perspective.
So when you can test out that water, stay safe and have fun!