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Picking the right open water event

Elaine Howley | July 9, 2014

It stands to reason, if you’re new to open water swimming and want to train for an event, starting smaller will likely result in a more successful outcome. There are lots of events out there, with more cropping up every season, in the 1- to 2-mile range that would make a great target for your first open water race. In addition, local triathlons can also be a good place for budding open water swimmers to start.

Some standard distances for open water swims include:

  • 750 meters: the swim portion of a Sprint Triathlon
  • 1.5 kilometers: the swim portion of an Olympic Triathlon
  • 1 mile: 1-Mile Open Water Swim
  • 1.2 miles: the swim portion of a half Iron-distance triathlon
  • 2 miles: USMS Cable Swim National Championship event distance
  • 2.4 miles: the swim portion of a full Iron-distance triathlon
  • 3.1 miles: 5K Open Water Swim
  • 6.2 miles: 10 kilometers, the threshold for “marathon” swimming (anything longer than this is considered a marathon)

And there are a host of other nonstandard distances and races to be found in every corner of the United States as well. That’s part of the beauty of open water racing: The course and the conditions on the day determine how long you’ll be out there and it’s always a race against who shows up on the day, the elements, and yourself. Every day is different and you never get the same swim twice in open water.

Safety First

When selecting an event, look for one with a strong track record of safety. Read reviews of the event online or ask other competitors who took part in previous years how they felt about the safety of the event. Some swimmers also advocate the “new restaurant” approach to events: Just as many food critics say not to visit a new restaurant in the first week it opens until the fridges are fully stocked and the bugs worked out among the wait staff and order system, so, too, should you be wary about taking part in a brand new event in the first year. Among good race directors, safety plans evolve each year based on participant feedback from the previous year, so sometimes waiting until the second iteration of an event can be a smart and safety-conscious idea.

The Next Event

If you’ve gotten comfortable at the 1-mile swim level, maybe it’s time to start thinking about a stretch goal. Try a 2-mile event, or even a 5K. The criteria for selecting a stretch goal should be the same: Find a safe event that you have enough time to train for. And then build a training plan, stay motivated, and have fun. Going for the stretch and succeeding after doing your homework is one of the most satisfying aspects of open water swimming, and the hard work that goes into preparing for one of these events is what makes one a “real” open water swimmer. 

Open Water 101 Article Series

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About the Author—Elaine Howley

Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including AARP.orgAtlas ObscuraespnW, and U.S. News & World Report. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she has contributed to SWIMMER magazine since 2009 and USMS.org since 2012. Contact her via her website: elainekhowley.com

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