Open Water Swim Tips

2014 Aug | By

by Jarrod Shoemaker, 2008 Olympic triathlete & expert contributor

The growth in open water swimming in the past decade has been tremendous, whether for fitness, competition or multi-sport events like triathlons. Venues range from lakes to rivers to bays to oceans and each one presents different challenges. Most open water swimmers train for races exclusively in the pool and this can leave them unprepared for open water swimming. There are a few important techniques to think about when swimming open water, so I put them together with my tips: sighting, stroke efficiency, buoy turns and water entries and exits.


First off, swimming open water is not like the pool! There is no convenient black line to follow, or walls to push off, or a bottom to stand on when you are tired. Athletes NEED to practice sighting. It is very different than looking down.

Sighting is a quick lift of the head to get your eyes out of the water to see the buoys ahead of you. You should not break your stroke to do this, because as soon as you stop your stroke you stop forward momentum. This is easy to practice in the pool, and is good to practice every once in a while during hard sets. Try to only lift your head and not your entire chest.

When swimming in the open water, especially in choppier conditions, try to sight when you are at the top of a wave instead of the trough. At the top of the wave you will actually be able to see where you are going, whereas if you sight in a trough you will just see water ahead of you.

- lift head not entire body
- practice in the pool
- sight on top of waves

Stroke Efficiency

Unfortunately quite a lot of age group swimmers are taught to swim as long as possible, while this is great for pool swimming, it is very inefficient for open water swimming. One of my coaches told me that to swim open water well you need to swim like a kayak. If you watch good kayakers they constantly have a paddle in the water, providing consistent propulsion. The same is true for open water, if you are constantly catching water with your hands you will be more consistent with your forward movement.

- consistent stroke = consistent forward propulsion

Buoys and Turns

Going around buoys and turns is another thing that is impossible to do in a normal pool (unless you can take out all the lane lines!). The best technique to use to go around buoys is to shorten your inside stroke, or take two strokes with your outside arm. You also should know close to what direction your turn around the buoy is i.e. 90 degrees, 120 degrees, etc. Scout out the course and know which buoys to turn at before you even get into the water.

- shorten inside stroke
- know direction of next buoy

Enter & Exit Water

The final piece of the open water puzzle is entering and exiting the water. Getting into and out of a pool is quite easy compared to open water. When you arrive at a race site always go look at the start area and the exit area. You should try and walk both areas to get a feel for what the bottom is like.
Swim starts can occur in many ways depending on the race venue.

1) In water start – The best tactic for starting in the water is to find your own space so you do not have too many people behind or next to you. Sometimes a farther path to the first buoy is faster if you do not have to deal with other people bumping you. If there is a countdown to the start make sure to get horizontal and try to start kicking in place before the gun goes off!

2) Beach start – The most important piece on a beach start is what the bottom of the water looks a few feet past the water’s edge. You should always walk the bottom to see if there are holes, rocks or sticks and to see how fast it drops off. I always walk out with long steps to see how far until I will start swimming. Once you know these things you can pick a good line. The most important thing is to run in and take a certain amount of steps and then start swimming. Pick that number and commit to it… 5 steps (or 4,6,7 etc.) push off and swim!

3) Dolphin diving –
Once in the water if it stays shallow enough you can dolphin dive. You push off the bottom at about a 45 degree angle, do an arc and dive back into the water, then grab the bottom pull forward, place your feet, push off and keep going. You should only dolphin dive when the water is between mid-thigh and waist deep.

4) Ocean starts – In addition to the beach start if you are swimming in the ocean make sure to take into account the waves. When waves come at you dive below them, if you can reach the bottom grab your hands in and once the wave passes push up off the bottom.

When exiting the water you need to prepare yourself to start running to the finish if you are in an open water race or your bike if you are doing a tri. I like to kick a bit harder in the last bit to warm up my legs for the run to transition.

1) Ramp exit –
A lot of triathlons use a ramp for exiting the water, whether it is a boat ramp or a ramp off a dock make sure you walk it to see what it feels like on your feet and how steep it is.

2) Beach exit –
If you are coming in on a beach, much like you did for a beach start see where you would stand up. My rule is once my fingertips hit the bottom I stand up and start running.

3) Push out exit
Not very many races use a dock with no ramp, for these races make sure to find an empty spot on the dock and try to make it one smooth motion to get out. Use the forward momentum of your swimming to keep you going forward onto the dock.

For all of these techniques, practice makes perfect. It is advantageous to go find a place to swim open water and practice sighting and buoy turns. If you cannot do this on a regular basis make sure to swim in the body of water you are racing in the day before the race. One final safety tip: never swim open water alone  

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