The Zen of Open Water Swimming

By Maurice Culley – June 4, 2012
Photo provided by TYR Sport, Inc.

I grew up as a competitive swimmer and I’m still playing around with the sport I love so much as I approach my 40s. Except now, I’ve opened my playing field to include open water swimming. Open water swimming gives me a feeling of Zen because I have to shift my thinking. When I train in the pool, it’s a simple formula of training sets and intervals along with some drills using equipment. When in open water, I’m dealing with obstacles that require me to be more aware of my surroundings and constantly manage my internal sense of “how I feel.” I’ve been doing this for a long time, and here’s my formula to help you get going for fun and safe swim training outdoors.

Swimming in open water is a bit more complicated than just putting on a swim suit and finding a watering hole. You need to consider safety, as most of these areas are not very populated. We are lucky here in Austin to have Barton Springs, which is probably the safest place as there are lifeguards during open hours for the 200-meter, natural pool. Gates open at 5:30 a.m., and swimmers are allowed to use the pool (with limited lifeguards) before 8 a.m. Lake Pflugerville, which has a sandy beach, is another great place to swim for free; the small, man-made lake has buoys that mark a 500-meter course. You can also swim at Decker Lake at Walter E. Long Park for a fee, which is where numerous Austin triathlons are held, including the legendary Danskin race. If you choose to venture into tougher elements, Windy Point Park at Lake Travis is a bit more “choppy” as the wind (hence the name) causes more waves. Mansfield Dam can create some great training opportunities if you need to practice in colder temperatures.

Now that you know where you can swim, it’s time for the logistical list to make sure you are prepared!

Know the outdoor temperature and wind conditions.

The wind affects how high the wave swells are, and conditions that are too hot or too cold can make a difference in how long you swim. Constantly monitor how you feel and make sure not to push the boundaries.

Check the water temperature before you swim.

This is important to know, as you will use more energy when water is too cold or too hot. A wetsuit can keep you from being too cold, but don’t simply use it as a rule. You can sometimes get too hot if the water temperature is warm. A good guideline for wearing a wetsuit is the USA Triathlon rule for competition: under 78 degrees, wetsuits are legal; over 84, wetsuits are not allowed; use your individual preference between 78-84 degrees. Don’t forget to hydrate, as you need to constantly drink water to avoid overheating in wetsuits and to maintain good hydration when training in open water.

Be aware of your physical surroundings. 

Because lake water is not clear like pool water and there’s no black line or lane ropes to guide by, swimmers must sight on other objects. Find some sighting spots such as trees, docks, or buildings on the horizon or use buoys to help you swim straight. “Sighting” means you’ll need to look up (kind of like a crocodile) every few strokes to see where you are going. It’s important to sight in order to keep track of how far you’ve gone and, therefore, not over-extend yourself. Also, make sure to visually note your entry and exit points. Think about your method for entering the water, as sometimes a deck is used to access deeper areas as opposed to a beach or ramp with a more gradual entrance. In one case, you’ll be jumping into the water as opposed to wading out to start your swim.

Monitor current conditions.

Current conditions are important so that once again, you don’t do extra swimming that may extend you physically beyond your limits. This is not such a problem locally, though you may need to practice this if you are traveling to do a race or open water event (especially an ocean swim) outside of Austin.

Have the right equipment. 

There are several pieces that can help you with open water and most of these are used for safety rather than as training enhancers. The number one piece of equipment is your training buddy! You should not swim in open water by yourself; always go with a friend who can help in case of emergency. Wear a brightly colored swim cap. It will help retain body warmth in cooler temperatures as well as enable people to keep track of you. Use goggles with a wide range of view or an open water mask that provides a larger viewing area. Most of the bigger goggle companies now make a variety of options, so be sure to use something that fits comfortably. You don’t always have to use a wetsuit but if you do, make sure it fits right… slightly snug is better than too big, which lets water slush around inside and is not safe. Wetsuits range in fit, flexibility, and thickness for different body types, so consult a professional when sizing things up. If you’re not a strong swimmer and confidence is not on your side, buy the fail-safe life preserver that comes in a compact pouch called Swimit (life vest). It works like a parachute in a swimming belt; you pull on a ripcord that inflates a life vest in seconds. Some folks venturing on longer distances use a GPS tracker (Finis) to let friends and family know where they will be. This is a little extreme but, if you don’t have a swim buddy, I strongly suggest getting one of these to make sure you are at least being watched virtually. Lastly, if you can’t find someone to swim alongside you, get a friend to use a kayak or stand up paddleboard (SUP) to be a spotter. This can be a great workout for them while making things extremely safe for you!

Above all, you need to consider your experience and confidence before heading outdoors.

Your swim stroke should be efficient so that longer distances don’t tire you very quickly. Why? You won’t have an opportunity to stand up or hold onto the sides as you would when swimming in a pool. Darker waters can seem a bit intimidating, so you need to feel confident with a lack of visibility while your face is in the water. Be sure to feel comfortable with critters, as you may spot (and feel) fish, turtles, crawfish, and frogs. A great way to get over fears is to play in shallow areas and go rock diving before venturing into swimming a workout. Experience is the only way to get used to the feel of open water swimming, so you need to practice as often as once a month. Even accomplished pool swimmers need to practice in open water if triathlons are in their future.

Swimming in open water is like the trail running revolution that is going on right now; it’s the same reason boot campers like to train outside. Being in a natural environment can definitely give you a feeling of Zen and it’s also a great way to vary your swim training. And that’s important, especially when you’ve been doing it as long as I have!

How to prepare for a triathlon start and swim

Open water swimming is great fun all by itself but at some point, you may want to train for a specific event. There are many open water competitions you might choose, and potentially, some of those events are triathlons. You’ll find that every open water swim course differs as do the, the conditions that surround the swim.. Swimming in open water competitions or triathlons will make you face different current, wind, and temperature obstacles that will require you to constantly pull from your bag of tricks in training.

Just as with your open water swim practices, take the time to scope out the area where you will be swimming. Gear your open water practices towards preparing for that event. Think about how you will approach the start; is it a beach start, a deep water start, or even a boat start? What will the water temperature be like, and will the event be wetsuit-legal? Everything you can learn about your swim prior to the start will help you be successful.

A triathlon swim is a unique situation in that you will start with as many as 50+ athletes at once in a starting wave (more if participating in an Ironman-distance event, where all age-group athletes start together), all headed in the same direction. When faced with this crowded situation, you need to find and/or make your own space by focusing on your tempo and speed. This doesn’t mean you beat up everyone around you so that you can swim without anyone touching you. It means that you must simply focus on what you are trying to do instead of focusing on avoiding other people. It is inevitable that there may be a little physical contact among triathletes, so you may need to swim with an attitude focused on taking care of your stroke technique and controlling your efforts while thinking about your breathing pattern to keep yourself cool and calm until the mass of swimmers thins out. Many training groups will actually practice mass starts to help their athletes get accustomed to the touching, bumping, and general chaos that comes with a triathlon swim start.

Before you start, check your equipment. Make sure your timing chip is securely fastened and get your watch ready if you are taking splits during the race. One equipment tip is to put your goggles on first and then pull on your swim cap. Having your swim cap on top can help keep your goggles in place in the event of a random kick or forceful wave of water that could otherwise pull them off. When you are training, you may even want to practice taking off and putting on your goggles while swimming in case they get knocked off or out of place during a race. Many triathlons will allow a short practice or warm-up swim prior to the start, so decide if you’d like to do this (some people find it calming while others would rather wait).

There are some mental aspects to preparing for a triathlon swim start. Don’t get so caught up in the start and where to position yourself, as it is really more of a crapshoot than an exact science! It is impossible to know what will happen in a swim start, so confidence and experience play a big part in positioning. The more you practice, the better you know yourself and your needs. The best advice I can give you is that it is easier to get passed by someone who is faster than you than it is to go around swimmers with little experience who may be erratic and unpredictable.

Once you’re swimming, the crowd may thin out. But there are still other obstacles. Be sure to practice breathing on both sides, as a variety of situations may cause you to need to vary your breathing pattern. For example, the sun coming up on the lake could be blinding on one side. Also, waves may cause you to favor one side more than the other to avoid taking in a mouthful of water. You want to be able to switch sides if for any reason you can’t see or you need to find a variety of landmarks, as you want to make sure you have the ability to sight so you don’t go off course.

One of the best things you can do to get ready for a triathlon open water swim start is to practice. There are many events in town that can help you get more open water experience before you sign up for your next race or triathlon. Pure Austin Splash-n-Dash series, Pfive5 series in Pflugerville, and Cap2K are all open water races. Again–be sure you are prepared for these events by training properly before arriving at the start line. Practicing on your own and taking classes to help you get more efficient in longer distance swimming are great ideas if you need more help reaching the Zen of open water swimming.

Maurice Culley is the owner and director of Austin T3—Team Triathlon Training, one of the largest triathlon training programs in the country, serving athletes in all three sports and at all levels. Maurice has an extensive swimming background; he was a member of the University of Texas Longhorns from 1992-1996, which included membership on a National Championship team (1996). Maurice went on to coach and took Austin ISD’s Bowie High School’s varsity team to a state championship and won a National Championship with the Circle C swim team. As a triathlete, Maurice was a qualifier for the World Championships in 2007 (IM70.3) and 2009 (ITU) in the half Ironman distance. In 2009, he was also a member of Team USA (35-39) at the World Championships in Perth, Australia.


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