The best tip for handling open water conditions is experience. The more that you have been exposed to various conditions in open water the more comfortable you will feel on competition day. So with that being said here are a few tips to consider...
It's time to learn how to compete in Open Water Swimming with these easy tips:
BEGINNERS: (you love the idea but you have a fear of the ocean; not being able to see or touch the bottom)
1. Pre-Competition Day – Never practice open water swimming alone. Even if you are a good swimmer, you should never swim alone. Swim with another person, or swim in an area with a lifeguard.
2. Getting Ready - Wear bathers or approved skins (blueseventy) that you have worn previously. Avoid wearing a brand new swim suit on competition day. Why? The salt will rub in places you never thought it would.
3. Know the Course - Look at the map of the swim or go to the lake, river, or ocean to figure out which direction you will need to swim and when. Have a look for prominent markers on land (eg. trees or buildings) to help with your orientation when you are in the water.
4. Review the Course - Take another swimmer and have a light swim from the start to the first turn buoy and look down the course for your marker buoys that will guide you throughout the swim.
5. On Your Marks - Stay Relaxed. Don't Panic. You're Not Alone! Cold water can make you breathe rapidly which may make you feel like you are so nervous your breathing is being impacted. If the water is cold and this happens, relax; your body is adjusting to the water temperature. Concentrate on breathing deeply, visualise yourself handling each turn buoy calmly, and seeing yourself completing the swim with a big grin! This will help you greatly. Wearing two swim caps will also help you in cold water as they will help keep the heat in your head.
6. The Start - Talk to people who have previously done the race (in past years). Pay attention to when the waves (groups of swimmers) in front of you start and watch the pattern they are swimming in. Start at the back of the pack if you lack confidence and this will be less stressful for you.
7. Which stroke do I swim? – You are allowed to swim more than one stroke. Breaststroke, backstroke and side stroke can all be used to give you a rest from freestyle, and to help you stay on course. Using breaststroke and backstroke can also help you adjust to the colder water.
8. Rounding the Turn Buoys – No breaststroke please. You don't want to kick the swimmer behind you in the face!
9. Don't draft/slipstream if you have not practiced the skill or only practiced it a little bit. At least not yet as a beginner. As a beginner if you get too close to someone's feet, you can end up getting kicked in the face and/or lose your goggles. It's important to concentrate on your swimming, your stroke, and your pace.
INTERMEDIATE: (you've completed a few open water events but are not yet achieving your potential)
1. Know the Course - Check out the layout of the course. Locate and count all the buoys as well as assessing the wave conditions, swim direction, sun direction, etc. It is often beneficial to site those first buoys from water level so you will know what they will look like when the swim starts.
2. The Start - Don't start at the front or the middle of your wave if you are not a strong swimmer. This is a mistake that is made frequently. The natural tendency is to start close to the front of the wave so that you have less distance to swim, but it can be quite rough in the front or middle of the pack if you don't have much experience with open water swimming. You might also swim the first part too fast and get tired. Also don't start right behind someone, try to stagger yourself so you don't get kicked by their feet on the start.
3. Learn to breathe on both sides – Known as 'bilateral breathing'; not only does it split the effort of certain muscle groups by 50%, but it's good to be able to turn away from the sun while swimming with clear goggles and avoid the waves and wind smashing in from one direction.
4. Slipstreaming – There is no FINA rule for drafting. Think cycling and tuck in behind a competitor that you know is a slightly faster swimmer. This will reduce your overall effort. If you are close enough to feel the bubbles of their feet you are in a prime position. Just a few points of courtesy - don't tap their feet and be sure to thank them after the competition.
ADVANCED: (you think you know it all…but there’s always room to learn, improve, or refresh)
1. Review the Course - Check for rips and currents when reviewing the course. Taking the fastest route via a rip may not necessarily be the straight line off of the beach, but it will get you to the turn buoy in record time.
2. The Start - Avoid that "centre field", "middle of the pack" position on the beach. Outside start position with a clear line to the first buoy is more advantageous.
3. Slipstreaming – The best position is on the outside, preferably behind someone's feet. Avoid getting boxed in the middle or you will get hammered on both sides. Think horse racing; the worst position is against the fence as you cannot get out. If you cannot get out, stop and duck under and out of the way, then go to the back of the pack or onto the outside of the person next to you.
4. Open Water 'Sighting' - The key to proper navigation. Lifting your head too often will slow you down, but if you don't do it enough you may veer off course. A good school of thought would be to 'sight' every 5 or 6 strokes. If you have a naturally straight swimming stoke you may go to every 10 strokes. Most swimmers 'sight' as they are exhaling, then lower their eyes back into the water, turn to the side for a normal breath. The key is to only lift your eyes high enough to see the buoy or other landmark that you are using for sighting. It's good to practice this move in the pool. Practice the drill in the middle 20 metres because the walls at either end can be less forgiving.
5. The Final Sprint – You've rounded the last turn buoy and you're heading back into the beach/finish. So far you have been primarily using your upper body muscle group. Now it's time to bring in the legs and lower body. To help get the blood to move to the lower extremities increase your kick the last 100m of the swim.