An Eye Opening Open Water Swim

Our taking off point for the first open water swim practice. Photo by james_shelton32.

Our taking off point for the first open water swim practice. Photo by james_shelton32.

I am sure that some people who train for triathlons go into the race without having ever done an open water swim. Perhaps they live in a landlocked area and have no access to open water in which to practice. More power to them for taking the plunge for the first time at the race! I feel very fortunate to have the Chesapeake Bay at my fingertips because I cannot imagine going into my first triathlon without having practiced open water swimming.

My husband and I met our friend at the beach of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (she also works there which is a nice inside connection!) for an open water swim practice. My husband swam competitively all through childhood and in high school and has one triathlon under his belt, so there was not much mystery in this swim for him. My friend has done several triathlons and was excited to be getting back into the water. At the pool, I’ve been working on my form, my stroke, my pace, and also breathing drills to prepare for open water and in the pool I have been steadily improving and feel good about my swimming skills. My only concern standing on the beach was that I would get cold.

We waded into thigh deep water, picked out the buoy we would swim to and dove in. By no means were we racing against each other, but I know that something inside of my ticked as though a race had started. I put all my might into my swim and it didn’t take long for me to tire out. I wasn’t even halfway to the buoy before I had to breaststroke and catch my breath and get my bearings. Back into freestyle I felt frustrated. I knew I had started out too fast and I knew that in the pool I would have been capable of swimming this distance which was about a half mile in total.

I tried to focus on keeping a steady pace, let my arms do the work, and minimize my kicking to preserve energy. Sighting the buoy did not prove to be too difficult but we were also swimming on a relatively calm day with normal waves rolling in. I was pleased that for the most part I was able to swim in a straight line which I thought would be one of the harder things to accomplish. However, I was frustrated that I couldn’t maintain the breathing patterns I practiced in the pool. I prefer to swim four strokes and then take a breath which again, in the pool, I can do pretty consistently. In the open water, I could only breath like this once every few lengths or so and I know it cost me efficiency and time.

Not being able to see was strange. The Bay is by no means clear though I could see my wrist in front of me as I pulled my arm through the water. The lack of visibility for the most part did not bother me but I did find myself telling myself that it’s all mental, reminding myself that there is nothing in the water. I can see how some people might not love swimming where they can’t see but I really do believe if you choose to remain calm and focus on swimming you will be fine.

There aren't too many easy ways to practice swimming with the masses until race day. Photo by Atlanta Smitty84.

There aren't too many easy ways to practice swimming with the masses until race day. Photo by Atlanta Smitty84.

By the time I got to the buoy I was feeling a little more comfortable. And then I got stung on my ankle by probably the only jelly fish in the Bay; I could tell it was small though and there was nothing I could do about it so I just kept swimming. My goal swimming back to the beach was to keep a steady pace and try to control my breathing better. I did ok, but overall I was not thrilled with my performance. The best way to describe the first open water swim is that I was disoriented. Not in regard to finding the buoy but by not knowing the exact distance we were going I had nothing with which to gauge my pace. In the pool, when I know exactly how many laps I’m doing and I know how long that takes me, it’s very easy to keep my pace in check so that I can get through the entire distance. In the open water, I had nothing to measure my pace or distance. I also started out too fast which is a mistake I will correct next time.

There is a solid month before the first triathlon and I hope to get in at least four more open water swims. I would like to feel comfortable with taking off from the beach and get a better sense of my form in the open water. I’d like to know for sure that I won’t go out too fast or panic. I don’t know that there is any good way to practice for a race start where I expect to be getting kicked and swam over top of, but if I can be better prepared for open water swimming, the rest will just be part of the race.

How do you practice open water swims?

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