Even if you hit the pool multiple days a week, your first organized open-water swim can feel disorienting, intimidating or just downright difficult. “Swimming in open water is completely different from swimming in a pool. There are no lane lines, and in most cases you can’t see the ground,” says Andrew Kalley, a USA Triathlon level II coach and senior coach at Chelsea Pier’s Full Throttle Endurance in New York City. To smooth out your stroke, we’re letting you in on the mistakes most open-water swimming newbies make. Plus, you’ll get expert tips on how to avoid them so you can glide right to the finish.
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6 Open-Water Swimming Mistakes Most Newbies Make
Mistake #1: Not practicing enough (or any) open-water swims
What to do instead: All the pool workouts that fill your training plan will certainly boost your fitness and form, but they won’t fully prep you for race day. “It’s best to practice open-water swimming in a non-stressful environment first, so you get more comfortable,” says Dave Kelsheimer, head coach of Team Santa Monica in California and head coach of Team USA open-water world championship swimming. Ideally, try to get in at least a couple practice swims on the actual course before race day. “It’s important not for increased fitness — but it’s about acclimating to the water temperature and sighting,” Kelsheimer says. Get to know the course and it might help calm your nerves come take off.
Mistake #2: Skipping a gear test run
What to do instead: As with all timed events, when it comes to triathlons or open-water swims, you should practice the golden rule: Never try something new on race day. “Swimming is stressful enough — you don’t want to leave any extra surprises for race morning,” says Kalley. He recommends practicing in your race kit, swimsuit, or wetsuit and goggles for at least three or four workouts ahead of the big day.
“Practice with the same pair or type of goggles you want to use for racing, and make sure they’re appropriate for the time of day you’re racing and the angle of the sun,” adds Kelsheimer. Also, get used to lubing up with BodyGlide or another anti-chafing balm. You should put it along the seams of your tri suit or wetsuit and anywhere it might irritate your skin, says Kelsheimer.
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Mistake #3: Not warming up
What to do instead: If it’s your first time out on the open water, you might be inclined to conserve your energy and avoid swimming before the start. But skipping a pre-race dip in the water “is a huge mistake, especially for cold-water races,” says Kalley. He advises swimming for 10 to 15 minutes before the race start to acclimate your body to the water temperature. “That amount of time will hardly waste any energy and, on the contrary, will have a huge impact on performance,” he says.
Jumping into the water beforehand isn’t only about warming up your muscles, either, says Kelsheimer: “It gets your shoulders lubricated, gives you the chance to do a final check of your goggles, and takes off a little bit of that nervousness, so you can start the race from a relaxed point.”
Mistake #4: Starting too soon when the gun goes off
What to do instead: Even if you’re eager to get going, resist the urge to charge into the water with the rest of the pack. “Other swimmers can be very aggressive at the start, which can be pretty daunting for newbies,” says Kelsheimer. Holding off for just 30 to 60 seconds will give you more breathing room. “Unless you know you are a good swimmer,” Kalley says, “you should head to the back of your wave and let the faster swimmers go. You’ll have a safer, faster, and more comfortable swim.”
As for positioning, Kelsheimer advises sidestepping the middle of the crowd and lining up on the far left or right of your age group to give yourself more space. Even better: “It’s usually the fastest, most direct distance to the first turn buoy,” he says.
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Mistake #5: Sighting too often — or not enough
What to do instead: Unlike in a pool, where lane lines keep you swimming straight, it’s easy to veer off course in open water. Sighting — or regularly looking up from your stroke — is important for staying on course. However, many people do it too often, says Kelsheimer. “A lot of swimmers will come out of the water and say their hip flexors are hurting — that’s a result of lifting their head too much, which puts pressure on your hips.”
On the flip side, not sighting enough can send you off course. “Ninety-nine percent of beginners don’t swim a straight line,” says Kalley. This will waste energy and leave you frustrated, which is why he recommends newbies peek their heads out of the water more often. Pay special attention to your sighting during your open-water trial runs, finding the right balance between looking up and down. That way, you’ll better learn to stay straight without constantly throwing off your body alignment.
Mistake #6: Standing too soon at the end
What to do instead: When you near the end of the swim and the water’s edge is in sight, avoid running through the rest of the water. If you put your feet down too soon, you could trip, twist an ankle, or hurt your foot on a rock, says Kelsheimer. More than that, wading through hip- or waist-deep water actually takes more time and energy than swimming. “To avoid feeling exhausted by the time you get to the transition area, you shouldn’t stand until your hands hit the ground a few times,” Kalley suggests. Repeat after us: Just keep swimming.