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Open Water Swimming: Do’s and Don’ts

BY Steven Moody

With pools shut down for the forseeable future, swimmers are itching to get back on the water. Here are some key safety considerations to remember.

Ironically enough, it is around this time of year that most triathletes would be taking their first tentative steps (and oh so gentle toe tipping) into lakes, rivers and oceans to start open-water swim practice. But this year it is a little more poignant, with it also being the first swimming opportunity in a long time, with pools closed likely for the foreseeable future.

With that, I thought it useful to remind us triathletes (new and experienced) of some key Open Water Swimming (OWS) Dos and Donts.

Note: One of the main differences with OWS is the need for safety, which features heavily below. Make sure that any race-specific workouts are done only when safety is taken care of!

DO: Dust Off the Wetsuit Early.

Most likely, your wetsuit has been in a corner growing things since it was tossed there post-last-race with the stout lie “Yup, will clean you tomorrow!” 

Be prepared for the fact it might be a tight squeeze. Off-season, particularly with lockdown cuisine, may have made you a “more rounded” athlete! A KEY TIP is to make sure body glide is part of your equipment check—otherwise, you will end up with the dreaded wetsuit neck sore!

DO: Get Familiar With the Area You Plan to Swim.

Ideally, you’ll be able to find an area where you are comfortable with the tides/currents and hazards such as rocks etc. If it is your first OWS, make sure you buddy up with a more experienced swimmer. They can advise you on where to swim, guide you around hazards, and be your safety net if things go sideways.

If you’re swimming in the sea, make sure you check out the tides before planning your training time. The best time for sea swimming is on or before the high tide. If you mess this up, the best case is you turn up and there is no water! The worst case is that tidal streams can be stronger (i.e. more dangerous) at low tide.

Luckily you do not have to be a lunar cycle genius to figure out when best to swim—plenty of apps such as “Tides near me” will give you the time you need.

DO: Choose Partners of Similar Ability

This should happen when discussing the planned session. A good way to set up a workout is to include duration, time and pace. For example: “We are going to swim for 30-mins in the local lake tomorrow at 11:00. Level is for Intermediate swimmers, i.e. 2 min/100m pace.” People can then self-select the session that is comfortable for them

While it’s good to push yourself a little, meeting up with Steve the “5 min 400m TT” guy when you are a back-of-the-pack newbie will just cause frustration for you both.

DO: Agree on Safety Protocols

For example: if someone gets into trouble, they can roll onto their back with their fist in the air to conserve energy and indicate that they need help. Use a buddy system with newbies, and have some way of ensuring everyone sticks together. My squad uses a “count off” system so we can quickly identify if we’re missing someone.

It’s similarly important to agree upon, and communicate about the session to the group before you hit the water to ensure everyone is on the same page. For example, “Ok, we are all going to swim to the orange bouy (roughly 400ms) and everyone regroup there. We’ll check that everyone ok to continue, then swim parallel to shore to the yellow bouy (300m) and regroup/count off. Then it is a simple straight back into shore. Everyone clear? Any Questions?”

DO NOT: Ignore the Weather

Yes, you may have juggled your training week for a Friday afternoon swim as tides look good and your buddy is free. But if you turn up and it is blowing a storm and the sea is alive with white horses/choppy seas, cancel the session.  It’s not worth your safety.

DO NOT: Ever Swim Alone

No matter how good a swimmer you think you are, things can happen outside of your control. Don’t end up a statistic.

DO NOT: Take Any Risks in Your First Few Sessions

Only plan to do 10-15 minutes of simple swimming close to the shore until your body has adjusted to wetsuit swimming/water temps and waves etc.

This is especially important in recent days, as most will be returning to the water after a long period on dryland, and swim fitness/technique will be poor. Yes, we are all excited about getting our swim on, but in our rush to get back into the water it’s important to remember the key basics to make it safe for ourselves and our clubmates.

Once you have that in the bag, you can increase the planned distance or time in the water and even add in key race-specific skills, such as drafting, cornering a bouy, or sighting in a pack. Enjoy and stay safe, people!

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About Steven Moody

Steven Moody has starred in the corporate rat race but found that his greatest source of satisfaction came from his 20 years of endurance racing including numerous IRONMAN finishes and world championship qualifications.

Realising this, Steven abandoned his cubicle and moved into full-time coaching. Steven is now Tri Sutto, IRONMAN UNIVERSITY ®, ITU and Training Peaks Level 2 certified. He was awarded Triathlon Ireland Coach of the year in 2017. Browse his pre-built training plans by clicking here, or if you have triathlon queries you can contact him via info@smartendurancesolutions.com


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