Congrats! You’ve signed up for your first triathlon or open-water swim. But now you need to actually jump in.
Swimming in an ocean or lake race, with hundreds of other participants jostling and kicking to get ahead of you and over you, can be very different than your calm pool workout.
“Even the most experienced swimmers experience a heart-rate spike at the beginning of a race when a crowded pack of swimmers is trying to round that first buoy and get moving along the racecourse,” says Laura Hamel, Communications and Publications Director at U.S. Masters Swimming.
We kicked and stroked our way to the best swimming experts for tips to help you conquer your fear of the open water so you can have your most confident race yet.
1. Get comfortable in the pool.
A pool has clean, clear water, so the lane markers on the bottom of the pool are visible. You know where you’re going, and your feet can likely touch ground at any time you choose. There’s also nobody else trying to swim behind you or pass you. Therefore, it’s really imperative to make sure that you’ve practiced and honed your technique in the pool first, says John Stewart, a triathlon coach with Race Day Coaching and the lead swim coach at JackRabbit Sports.
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2. Acknowledge open water swimming is different.
Treat open-water swimming like a technical sport where mistakes could have very real consequences, says Hamel. Be cognizant that there are dangers out there. Whether you’re hitting your local lake or trying the open waters on vacation, learn more about the body of water by talking with locals or using apps to track conditions in the area before heading out.
The temperature is also something to contend with. It could be warmer or colder in different locations, says Sam Cardona, Corporate Wellness Director for the New York Health and Racquet Club and 10-time Ironman finisher. Even a slight change like this could throw your body into panic mode. Cardona recommends taking a moment to get familiar with the water before even trying to swim.
3. Practice your fears.
It may sound kind of crazy, but try your best to stimulate what scares you, says Sam Zizzi, professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at West Virginia University and certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology,who has worked with Ironman-level athletes to address their fears. “The natural tendency is to avoid the anxiety,” but you want to make sure you’ll have control in case the situation arises, he explains. For example, if you’re scared of your goggles slipping off, then knock them off yourself or have a buddy do it during training. Practice finding the goggles, reset mentally, begin swimming again and repeat the whole process. This will help make you feel more comfortable should you lose your specs during a race.
4. Learn to sight.
You don’t want all that hard work perfecting your stroke to be for naught when you swim off-course, right? Sighting is a technique that will help you swim as straight as possible by raising your head so your eyes are just above the water level and finding a landmark to assure that you’re swimming in the right direction. Stewart recommends two different techniques:
Technique 1: Sight first, then breathe. You’ll start reaching forward with your right arm, while simultaneously sighting a target ahead of you, such as a buoy, and then finish the motion breathing and pulling to the right. With practice, this should become one fluid motion.
Technique 2: Breathe first, sight right after. This uses two arms, but some people like it because they like to breathe first. You’ll take a full stroke, breathe, sight your mark, and then take your next stroke on the opposite side.
If you’re training for an open-water swim, you should also be doing at least 500 yards of sighting practice in the pool every week, just as you do your other drills.
5. Set yourself up for success.
“You’re going from a really calm environment to a very different environment, says Cardona,“ When you get to open water, you can’t see as well. That could start to freak you out.”
Before any race, Cardona recommends taking the allotted warm-up time to get into the water, become familiar with the temperature and swim around a bit to get your heart rate up. This way, you’ll decrease the chances of it spiking come go time.
Next, decide where you’re going to start. If you’re confident, you can go up front. If you’re freaking out because of the crowds, Hamel recommends hanging off to the back and side of the pack, and taking your time to get in the water, letting the faster swimmers go ahead of you.
6. On your mark…get set…GO!
Much like running, most people start off the swim too fast and wear out early. Try to begin at a more leisurely, attainable pace and gradually build up your speed, Cardona says. Another key difference between the pool and the open water is that you can “draft,” or swim in the wake of the person in front of you. “A swimmer who’s not as strong can benefit from a really strong swimmer,” he says. If you notice a stronger swimmer in front of you, get directly behind or on the hip side of them and get in the draft of their wake. Bonus: you don’t need to sight as much if you’re swimming behind someone who is sighting.
If panic does set in…
“I’ve panicked myself,” says Stewart, “and it happens to lots of pros.” If you start freaking out in the water, find a stroke that feels comfortable to you, such as breaststroke, or even just roll on your back and take deep breaths until your heart rate drops a bit. Focus on the clouds in the sky or something else in your environment that can calm you. You may want to use a calming word such as “strong” or “smooth” and repeat it over and over to yourself until you’re feeling more comfortable.
Open water swimming can be daunting, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll have a skill you can take to any body of water — and the knowledge that a few choppy waves can’t stop you!
For more information on open water swimming, check out the U.S. Masters Open Water Swimming 101.