The goggles I wore were tinted too dark, and  I couldn’t see any of the buoys nor my hand in front of me. Things were swimming between my feet, and the sea lice were biting parts of my body I didn’t even know I had.  I loved it!

It was my first Open Water race. I swam in 60-degree water on a cold, cloudy day to finally cross the finish line in a little under 30 minutes.

My tip to anyone getting ready for an Open Water Race is to learn everything you possibly can about open water. Know how to read and predict currents, tides and navigation. Make yourself a Wayfinder.

This was over ten years ago, and since then, I coach and train regularly in oceans, rivers, and lakes. I frequently get questions about Open Water racing so without further ado, here are ten things I tell anyone who wants to do an Open Water race:

Expect the unexpected!  During a typical race, you’ll get pushed by the current, swallow saltwater, bump into other racers, and still have to navigate the course. Extremes have to be your new normal. Consider taking cold showers, getting in hot saunas, training without goggles, and figuring out how to make yourself self-supporting during a swim. You may have to find a way to carry water with you, carry a spare pair of goggles, or be prepared for a rip current.

1. Train different.

Don’t totally say goodbye to those long boring sets and boring practices in a controlled environment that you’ve been told to do.  But know that Open Water Swimming races are not totally controllable. There are all types of elements you need to learn about and train to address. For example, a typical training session might involve practicing swimming sideways while spotting a specific landmark. Or maybe doing a wide rounded turn to the right around a buoy instead of a flip-turn on a wall.  Or you may practice swimming through waves or having waves behind you. Under the guidance of an inventive professional coach, you may find yourself carrying a heavy rock or brick across the bottom of the pool and practicing starting from a dead stop in the middle of the pool.

2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.  

During a typical race, you’ll get pushed, tugged on, and even run over (and that’s just at the start). You will swallow water, bump into things, and all the while have to make sure you’re staying on course.   Create different conditions under which to train.  Cold Showers can prepare you for cold water. Training in a warmer than usual pool or body of water can prepare you for warm temperatures.  Swim in saltwater and freshwater and notice the difference

3. Incorporate lots of kicking into your training.

Kicking you ask? Yep kicking. But everyone always tells me to conserve my energy and pull instead of kick?? Good luck with that.  Somewhere along the line, you are going to need your legs.  I remember using my kick to get through the dreaded Cow Key a couple of times during the Swim around Key West.  And at some point, if you are competitive, you are going to want to out sprint that fellow racer at the finish.

You are making your pulling ability more efficient by training with a pull buoy and isolating your legs. Meanwhile, your competitors are pushing themselves to become more efficient while kicking; meaning they can kick harder for further distances using less oxygen. Watch video of the Open Water World Championships or Olympic Games. You’ll see the swimmers in the lead are holding a steady kick. Again, get comfortable being uncomfortable.  Open Water races have lots of challenges. No matter how you train you will encounter elements that will challenge your physical stamina and you will always have a point that you will NEED to increase your kick.

4. Figure out how to be self-sufficient

Triathletes and open water swimmers have come to expect catered aid stations full of gels, cookies, electrolytes, and water.  Open Water Swimming is an extreme sport. Treat it as such. Sometimes you are lucky to get a small cup of water for emergencies only. Be self-sufficient. Be a Wayfinder. If you are swimming more than a mile, find a way to stay hydrated. Keep energy gels in your suit if you need them. You simply never know what you make encounter at each race. Take it into your own hands.

5. Avoid the pool. Avoid the gym

Unfortunately, pool sessions are a necessity but don’t get stuck in one. But pools are controlled, organized, predictable environments. Pools are the exact opposite of everything you’ll encounter in an open water swim. When you can, find a better way. In the longer term, you will be more prepared, and you’ll have more fun.  Find open water and get in. If you only have a pool, think about cross-training in the pool. Take the lane lines out and swim in circles. Do jumps off the bottom to practice breath control. Have your friends create waves you have to swim through. Get in and out of the water between repeats to do pushups, sit-ups, squats, etc. Constantly mix it up. Train your brain to be used to surprises.

6. Perfect your sighting and buoy turns

The most common “fail” in Open Water Swimming is missing a buoy. If you don’t turn on the correct side of the buoy, you will be disqualified. If you aim for the wrong buoy, you have to swim further to get back to the correct buoy, or you get disqualified.  An important tip to anyone preparing for an Open Water Swim is to start and end each practice working on navigating and sighting buoys. You don’t have to be in the open water to do this, and you don’t have to have a massive race buoy on hand to do this. Get your training partner to stand in one place and practice swimming around them at a fast pace. Get an anchor and tie it to your safe swimmer or floating item and swim around it. Practice swimming head up and keeping your sight on a specific object.

7. Prepare for the Challenge.

During the race, you’ll come across seaweed, currents, animals you hoped you would never see, cuts from barnacles or reefs, waves, and other aggressive swimmers.   Cover any open wounds. Tape up weak spots on your body, wear a wetsuit or long suit when allowed. But mostly, be prepared to accept responsibility for yourself. This sport is about you conquering the elements. It’s about you learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You’ll thank yourself if you prepare as if you are going into battle instead of preparing as if you were going to a spa.

8. Use the right gear.

Only you know what makes you the most comfortable during training and racing. I prefer to wear a triathlon style wetsuit if the water is cold. If it’s warm, I wear a knee length tight fitting race suit to avoid chafing on the legs. I use Vaseline or skin protection under my arms to prevent chafing. Whether training or competing, wear a bright colored swim cap you can be easily spotted. And I don’t like to make too many brand specific suggestions, but I do highly recommend a safe swimmer by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. It is an inflatable buoy that trails behind you within your wake, so it does not slow you down. Some even have the ability to put items in to keep dry. Wear goggles with a broad view so you can see in front of you and to the sides. And consider an anti-fog method; it’s important if you don’t continually want to stop and clear your goggles.

9. Recruit friends and teammates.

At many races, it’s completely acceptable for teams and groups of friends, co-workers and families to help each other out by offering a hand, create drag for fellow teammates or help someone else stay on course and sight Sometimes simply staying together as a group for moral support is itself the challenge. Most people will agree they prefer to race and find it more enjoyable in a group. Consider forming a team and compete as a group. Consider raising money for your favorite charity with this method.

10. Sign Up For A Race. Do it!

Last thing: Stop considering it and do it.  When you enter that race you know why you are training, you have a goal! I hear a lot of people who are “planning” on doing an Open Water race. Until you sign up for a race, you’ll never understand the experience. You’ll never understand why so many people can experience that “flow” state when they finally get in the water.


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