Open Water Swimming – For Beginners

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I learned to swim in a lake where my family lived, in northern Wisconsin. My siblings and I trained summer workouts in open water since the nearest pool was a thirty minute drive and our back yard was more convenient. Due to this immersion, it did not seem strange when I competed in my first open water race in Seal Beach, California, in my late twenties. Open water swimming has been a never ending adventure. Some of my favorite memories are from swims; leaving from Catalina Island for the California mainland at 1 am on a windless moonlight night, watching the phosphorescence glow as my arm pulled through the water and fish darted below; swimming in tandem with my husband, Dave, silhouetted against the beautiful blue Caribbean water off the coast of St. Lucia. Other memories include the sense of fear before beginning a 42 kilometer race in Newport Vermont, which heads north up Lake Memphremagog towards Canada and a ‘foggy’ memory (due to mild hypothermia) of finishing in Calais, France after crossing the English Channel. There was also the exhilaration of conquering tough cold conditions or large waves and chop, swimming and finishing races despite mother natures’ indifference to my plight.

There is a freedom and challenge swimming in open water which just can’t be experienced in the pool. Are you ready?

How to begin?

OK, swimming in open water is your goal, where do you start? I will assume that you already know how to swim. If not, take some lessons, join a YMCA or a masters swimming team and learn the crawlstroke/freestyle.

There are a few things that you can do in the pool to prepare for swimming in open water; bilateral breathing, head lifting and stroke rate training.

First of all, breathing on both sides, or bilateral breathing, is a must. (I can hear the groans!!!) Let’s see if you are physically capable. Stand up and twist the upper half of your body to the right and then to the left. Then turn your head to the right and left. SCHEZAM!!! You can learn to breathe to both sides. Why is this necessary? Imagine or perform the following experiment. Find an open space about 400 yards long. Select a target and try to walk straight towards it EXCEPT close your eyes and turn your head, looking to the right every 2 steps. Sneak a look forward every 10 steps. Vision in the water will be even more restricted than this because you may or may not be able to see forward depending upon wave conditions, fog in your goggles or glare from the sun reflecting off of the water. This is also assuming strict concentration upon straight line swimming – not imagining that shadows are sharks and weeds are snakes- which will improve with practice.

Breathing on both sides accomplishes two main goals. It tends to “even out” your stroke so that you will naturally swim straighter. Ha, ha, you already KNOW how to swim straight, right? But that is in the pool. Think of the available cues, lane lines on the side and a black line on the bottom to guide your progress. Open water is much different. In addition to the lack of visual cues available in the pool, the water is colder, there might be some waves and the ‘pool length’ can be as long as a mile!

The second advantage to bilateral breathing is that it will allow you to see to the right and left. When swimming in the ocean, the usual course traverses down and back along the beach. If you only breathe to one side, half of your race will have NO visible cues toward the shore. Watching the shoreline is extremely helpful for straight swimming in the ocean.

Other advantages include being able to breath away from oncoming waves or fumes from boats during escorted swims.

Another skill to practice in the pool is lifting your head to see forward while swimming. The easiest way is to lift your head forward just before taking a breath to the side. I use the forward motion to look and then breathe to the side. Breathing head forward is not suggested since it requires too much energy to lift the head high enough for a breath and will cause slower swimming. Swim head up freestyle in the pool and see how difficult it is compared with head down swimming.

Try to get comfortable with this peek forward in the pool where it is relatively calm. It will be more difficult in open water, especially in the ocean.

How often is it necessary to look forward? That depends upon your straight line swimming ability coupled with and course conditions. Ideally, the less head lifting, the better, but swimming off course is also not advantageous. Initially, try only looking forward every 10 strokes (each arm counts as one).

Temperatures in open water are usually colder and may require a quicker stroke rate, -how much time it takes to complete your arm pull-. In open water, stroke rate is determined by counting once for each arm as it starts pulling through the water.

The rate is determined by counting each arm stroke for one minute (or counting for 30 seconds and multiplying by 2, or counting for 15 seconds and multiplying by 4). The best open water swimmers in the world have stroke rates between 70 and 90 strokes per minute, with women generally on the higher end of that scale. A faster stroke rate will assist in keeping a swimmer warmer in cold water. Have a friend time your rate in the pool. If it is under 60, you may want to work on increasing it to better handle colder temperatures.

Don’t get frustrated if increasing your stroke rate is difficult. People usually do not have a daily activity where their arm muscles exercise ‘aerobically’. Swimmers develop “aerobic arms” through years of training. A runner’s aerobic capability may not automatically transfer to the pool where the arms are the primary motor instead of the legs. Likewise, I can swim comfortably at 80 strokes per minutes after years of training, but watch out if I’m out running; my labored breathing can be heard miles away.

I have one more suggestion with which some coaches may disagree; modifying the stroke recovery. The ‘recovery’ is how a swimmer brings the arm out of the water and back to the front after completing a stroke. Many times coaches teach swimmers to sharply bend their elbow during the recovery. This usually brings the hand close to the surface of the water. This type of recovery may not work as well in waves. A majority of open water marathon swimmers use a straight arm recovery as opposed to a bent elbow recovery. I believe a straight arm recovery works better in waves and also helps reduce strain on the shoulder. The pectoral muscles work more to recover the arm when it is straight while the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles work more to recover the arm when it is bent at the elbow. Experiment with your recovery and see what works best for you, bent, straight, or somewhere in between. All types have been used by fast swimmers and world record holders; Janet Evans being a prime example.

Equipment

The basics, cap suit and goggles are the same with some small variations. A thicker cap (made of silicon as opposed to latex) might be preferable to keep the head warmer. Sometimes a swimming cap does not stay on very well and continually slips. This can be extremely annoying during a race. Try wearing a new cap which isn’t stretched out. Another tip, avoid hair conditioner for several days before a race. Conditioner makes the hair slippery and helps the cap slide. If the water and air are hot, and your hair short, a cap may not be necessary. Tinted goggles which reflect the sun and reduce glare can also be helpful, but they are not a necessity.

A special swimming suit is not necessary although chaffing is a consideration when selecting your attire. Rub marks on the skin from the suit and body parts can occur and are likely in salt water. The more salt, the more rubs. When I swam the12 mile race around Key West, the water was so salty that all of the seams of my suit creates rub marks which was very unusual. Rub areas include the armpit, inner thighs, neck and bust line. Women have more trouble because of their suits at the neck and bust line near the armpit. Men can have trouble where their beard or whiskers rub against their neck and arms. Vasoline, lanolin, bag balm or other grease can be used to prevent chafe marks. For beginners, apply grease in the armpit, neck and inner thigh. If rubs are going to occur in other areas, you’ll find out ‘where’ after a few training swims. Some swimmers use gloves, a rag or even a stick off the beach to apply grease without getting it on their hands. Grease on the hands can easily get on the goggles and obscure your vision. If you are wearing a suit which zips up the back, the zipper at the top often rubs the skin. Sewing a small piece of felt or chamois cloth between the zipper closure and skin will prevent chaffing.

Also, don’t forget sunblock if you are out during peak sun hours. Experiment and find out what works best for your skin. Waterproof does not necessarily mean that the block will work for hours on end. If you are planning a long training swim, try to start early in the morning before the sun’s rays reach their peak.

First open water foray.

Now that you have practiced a couple of skills, you are ready for your first open water swim. Your location will dictate which sites are available. Be smart for your first start. If it is raining and cold with 20 mile per hour winds, put your swim off to another day.

Research the site where you plan to swim. Safety should always be your first priority. Are there lifeguards on duty? If yes, let them know your swim plans; direction, time and/or distance. If not, don’t swim alone. Have someone kayak, paddle, swim or walk the shore along your side. Try to stay close to shore in water depth where you can stand unless the ocean surf dictates otherwise. Find out the water temperature so you will have a better idea what to expect. Are there hazards such as rip currents in the area? What water creatures might be encountered? Talk to the lifeguards or other local swimmers in order to get information about the site.

Have an escape plan from your swim if the weather or your body takes a turn for the worse. This is easy during a shoreline beach swim, just get out and walk back to the start.

Getting In

Take a moment before getting in the water to look and see what’s available for landmarks to help gauge your location during your swim. The sun is the easiest landmark to use if it is low in the sky. If you are swimming a straight course and the sun is directly to your left while breathing, watching it will help gauge your position. If it suddenly appears in front, you’re off course and need to readjust.

The ocean or lake shoreline is another excellent landmark that can be seen on each breath (assuming bilateral breathing is part of your repertoire) and are easy to use when swimming an ‘out and back’ course along the shore.

In a lake, there may be a large tree sticking up above the horizon or a brightly colored house across the lake which can be used to keep aim; finally, a reason to be thankful for a homeowner’s bright pink paint selection. Try to use landmarks which are tall or high above the horizon as opposed to those close to the water level. If a landmark is low, it may be difficult to see if there are waves or swell. Look for tall buildings, water towers or church steeples. While swimming at open water camp in Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine -yes, that is the actual name of the lake- mountains in the area provided excellent landmarks.

Swimmers have a saying, “The worst part of workout is getting in the pool.” Getting into open water isn’t any easier. Is better to get in slowly and adjust to the temperature or get in quickly? Try both and see which is preferable, either is acceptable with one caveat. If the air temperature is cold, a lot of body heat can be lost while “getting in” if it takes several minutes. Better to get in quickly and lose less body heat than slowly and get chilled before starting. If the water is cold but the air is warm, and sun is shining, it’s OK to take longer getting in since your body’s not losing heat.

Many open water athletes swim for time rather than distance for their training. While watching your wristwatch, time might seem like it is DRAGGING! This is fairly common. Five minutes seems like twenty. Don’t worry; your ‘time sense’ will improve with more open water practice. Adjusting to swimming for long periods without turns, takes time.

Take it easy and try to enjoy your first open water experience. Check in after the first few minutes, and ask yourself, “Am I relaxed?” If the answer is ‘no’, concentrate on relaxing your muscles and see if that helps your comfort level improve. The mind is your company during open water swims, and its important to keep the “little voice” (sometimes it’s shouting) in your head echoing a positive message. Try to keep the ‘negative’ thoughts (this stinks!) to a minimum. Sometimes it’s helpful to yell out negative thoughts, “This water is FREEZING” or “These waves are horrible!”, and get them out of your system.

Don’t be concerned if your first experience isn’t nirvana. Remember back, learning to ride a bike or drive a car? Those skills weren’t second nature the first time either. The more experience gained in open water, the higher your comfort level.



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I learned to swim in a lake where my family lived, in northern Wisconsin. My siblings and I trained summer workouts in open water since the nearest pool was a thirty minute drive and our back yard was more convenient. Due to this immersion, it did not seem strange when I competed in my first open water race in Seal Beach, California, in my late twenties. Open water swimming has been a never ending adventure. Some of my favorite memories are from swims; leaving from Catalina Island for the California mainland at 1 am on a windless moonlight night, watching the phosphorescence glow as my arm pulled through the water and fish darted below; swimming in tandem with my husband, Dave, silhouetted against the beautiful blue Caribbean water off the coast of St. Lucia. Other memories include the sense of fear before beginning a 42 kilometer race in Newport Vermont, which heads north up Lake Memphremagog towards Canada and a ‘foggy’ memory (due to mild hypothermia) of finishing in Calais, France after crossing the English Channel. There was also the exhilaration of conquering tough cold conditions or large waves and chop, swimming and finishing races despite mother natures’ indifference to my plight.

There is a freedom and challenge swimming in open water which just can’t be experienced in the pool. Are you ready?

How to begin?

OK, swimming in open water is your goal, where do you start? I will assume that you already know how to swim. If not, take some lessons, join a YMCA or a masters swimming team and learn the crawlstroke/freestyle.

There are a few things that you can do in the pool to prepare for swimming in open water; bilateral breathing, head lifting and stroke rate training.

First of all, breathing on both sides, or bilateral breathing, is a must. (I can hear the groans!!!) Let’s see if you are physically capable. Stand up and twist the upper half of your body to the right and then to the left. Then turn your head to the right and left. SCHEZAM!!! You can learn to breathe to both sides. Why is this necessary? Imagine or perform the following experiment. Find an open space about 400 yards long. Select a target and try to walk straight towards it EXCEPT close your eyes and turn your head, looking to the right every 2 steps. Sneak a look forward every 10 steps. Vision in the water will be even more restricted than this because you may or may not be able to see forward depending upon wave conditions, fog in your goggles or glare from the sun reflecting off of the water. This is also assuming strict concentration upon straight line swimming – not imagining that shadows are sharks and weeds are snakes- which will improve with practice.

Breathing on both sides accomplishes two main goals. It tends to “even out” your stroke so that you will naturally swim straighter. Ha, ha, you already KNOW how to swim straight, right? But that is in the pool. Think of the available cues, lane lines on the side and a black line on the bottom to guide your progress. Open water is much different. In addition to the lack of visual cues available in the pool, the water is colder, there might be some waves and the ‘pool length’ can be as long as a mile!

The second advantage to bilateral breathing is that it will allow you to see to the right and left. When swimming in the ocean, the usual course traverses down and back along the beach. If you only breathe to one side, half of your race will have NO visible cues toward the shore. Watching the shoreline is extremely helpful for straight swimming in the ocean.

Other advantages include being able to breath away from oncoming waves or fumes from boats during escorted swims.

Another skill to practice in the pool is lifting your head to see forward while swimming. The easiest way is to lift your head forward just before taking a breath to the side. I use the forward motion to look and then breathe to the side. Breathing head forward is not suggested since it requires too much energy to lift the head high enough for a breath and will cause slower swimming. Swim head up freestyle in the pool and see how difficult it is compared with head down swimming.

Try to get comfortable with this peek forward in the pool where it is relatively calm. It will be more difficult in open water, especially in the ocean.

How often is it necessary to look forward? That depends upon your straight line swimming ability coupled with and course conditions. Ideally, the less head lifting, the better, but swimming off course is also not advantageous. Initially, try only looking forward every 10 strokes (each arm counts as one).

Temperatures in open water are usually colder and may require a quicker stroke rate, -how much time it takes to complete your arm pull-. In open water, stroke rate is determined by counting once for each arm as it starts pulling through the water.

The rate is determined by counting each arm stroke for one minute (or counting for 30 seconds and multiplying by 2, or counting for 15 seconds and multiplying by 4). The best open water swimmers in the world have stroke rates between 70 and 90 strokes per minute, with women generally on the higher end of that scale. A faster stroke rate will assist in keeping a swimmer warmer in cold water. Have a friend time your rate in the pool. If it is under 60, you may want to work on increasing it to better handle colder temperatures.

Don’t get frustrated if increasing your stroke rate is difficult. People usually do not have a daily activity where their arm muscles exercise ‘aerobically’. Swimmers develop “aerobic arms” through years of training. A runner’s aerobic capability may not automatically transfer to the pool where the arms are the primary motor instead of the legs. Likewise, I can swim comfortably at 80 strokes per minutes after years of training, but watch out if I’m out running; my labored breathing can be heard miles away.

I have one more suggestion with which some coaches may disagree; modifying the stroke recovery. The ‘recovery’ is how a swimmer brings the arm out of the water and back to the front after completing a stroke. Many times coaches teach swimmers to sharply bend their elbow during the recovery. This usually brings the hand close to the surface of the water. This type of recovery may not work as well in waves. A majority of open water marathon swimmers use a straight arm recovery as opposed to a bent elbow recovery. I believe a straight arm recovery works better in waves and also helps reduce strain on the shoulder. The pectoral muscles work more to recover the arm when it is straight while the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles work more to recover the arm when it is bent at the elbow. Experiment with your recovery and see what works best for you, bent, straight, or somewhere in between. All types have been used by fast swimmers and world record holders; Janet Evans being a prime example.

Equipment

The basics, cap suit and goggles are the same with some small variations. A thicker cap (made of silicon as opposed to latex) might be preferable to keep the head warmer. Sometimes a swimming cap does not stay on very well and continually slips. This can be extremely annoying during a race. Try wearing a new cap which isn’t stretched out. Another tip, avoid hair conditioner for several days before a race. Conditioner makes the hair slippery and helps the cap slide. If the water and air are hot, and your hair short, a cap may not be necessary. Tinted goggles which reflect the sun and reduce glare can also be helpful, but they are not a necessity.

A special swimming suit is not necessary although chaffing is a consideration when selecting your attire. Rub marks on the skin from the suit and body parts can occur and are likely in salt water. The more salt, the more rubs. When I swam the12 mile race around Key West, the water was so salty that all of the seams of my suit creates rub marks which was very unusual. Rub areas include the armpit, inner thighs, neck and bust line. Women have more trouble because of their suits at the neck and bust line near the armpit. Men can have trouble where their beard or whiskers rub against their neck and arms. Vasoline, lanolin, bag balm or other grease can be used to prevent chafe marks. For beginners, apply grease in the armpit, neck and inner thigh. If rubs are going to occur in other areas, you’ll find out ‘where’ after a few training swims. Some swimmers use gloves, a rag or even a stick off the beach to apply grease without getting it on their hands. Grease on the hands can easily get on the goggles and obscure your vision. If you are wearing a suit which zips up the back, the zipper at the top often rubs the skin. Sewing a small piece of felt or chamois cloth between the zipper closure and skin will prevent chaffing.

Also, don’t forget sunblock if you are out during peak sun hours. Experiment and find out what works best for your skin. Waterproof does not necessarily mean that the block will work for hours on end. If you are planning a long training swim, try to start early in the morning before the sun’s rays reach their peak.

First open water foray.

Now that you have practiced a couple of skills, you are ready for your first open water swim. Your location will dictate which sites are available. Be smart for your first start. If it is raining and cold with 20 mile per hour winds, put your swim off to another day.

Research the site where you plan to swim. Safety should always be your first priority. Are there lifeguards on duty? If yes, let them know your swim plans; direction, time and/or distance. If not, don’t swim alone. Have someone kayak, paddle, swim or walk the shore along your side. Try to stay close to shore in water depth where you can stand unless the ocean surf dictates otherwise. Find out the water temperature so you will have a better idea what to expect. Are there hazards such as rip currents in the area? What water creatures might be encountered? Talk to the lifeguards or other local swimmers in order to get information about the site.

Have an escape plan from your swim if the weather or your body takes a turn for the worse. This is easy during a shoreline beach swim, just get out and walk back to the start.

Getting In

Take a moment before getting in the water to look and see what’s available for landmarks to help gauge your location during your swim. The sun is the easiest landmark to use if it is low in the sky. If you are swimming a straight course and the sun is directly to your left while breathing, watching it will help gauge your position. If it suddenly appears in front, you’re off course and need to readjust.

The ocean or lake shoreline is another excellent landmark that can be seen on each breath (assuming bilateral breathing is part of your repertoire) and are easy to use when swimming an ‘out and back’ course along the shore.

In a lake, there may be a large tree sticking up above the horizon or a brightly colored house across the lake which can be used to keep aim; finally, a reason to be thankful for a homeowner’s bright pink paint selection. Try to use landmarks which are tall or high above the horizon as opposed to those close to the water level. If a landmark is low, it may be difficult to see if there are waves or swell. Look for tall buildings, water towers or church steeples. While swimming at open water camp in Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine -yes, that is the actual name of the lake- mountains in the area provided excellent landmarks.

Swimmers have a saying, “The worst part of workout is getting in the pool.” Getting into open water isn’t any easier. Is better to get in slowly and adjust to the temperature or get in quickly? Try both and see which is preferable, either is acceptable with one caveat. If the air temperature is cold, a lot of body heat can be lost while “getting in” if it takes several minutes. Better to get in quickly and lose less body heat than slowly and get chilled before starting. If the water is cold but the air is warm, and sun is shining, it’s OK to take longer getting in since your body’s not losing heat.

Many open water athletes swim for time rather than distance for their training. While watching your wristwatch, time might seem like it is DRAGGING! This is fairly common. Five minutes seems like twenty. Don’t worry; your ‘time sense’ will improve with more open water practice. Adjusting to swimming for long periods without turns, takes time.

Take it easy and try to enjoy your first open water experience. Check in after the first few minutes, and ask yourself, “Am I relaxed?” If the answer is ‘no’, concentrate on relaxing your muscles and see if that helps your comfort level improve. The mind is your company during open water swims, and its important to keep the “little voice” (sometimes it’s shouting) in your head echoing a positive message. Try to keep the ‘negative’ thoughts (this stinks!) to a minimum. Sometimes it’s helpful to yell out negative thoughts, “This water is FREEZING” or “These waves are horrible!”, and get them out of your system.

Don’t be concerned if your first experience isn’t nirvana. Remember back, learning to ride a bike or drive a car? Those skills weren’t second nature the first time either. The more experience gained in open water, the higher your comfort level.

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