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by Stuart McDougal

April 15, 2019

The swim leg can pose trouble for even the most experienced pool swimmers

Let’s say your buddy tells you about a triathlon that’s coming up in a few weeks. “It’ll be fun,” he says. “Swim, bike, and run—what could go wrong?”

Your response: “Yeah, what could go wrong? Let’s do it.”

But then your inner voice reminds you that, although you can bike and run fairly well, you don’t have any experience swimming in the open water, where you can’t hold on to walls and lane lines to rest. You start asking yourself what you’ve gotten yourself into.

For triathletes new to open water, the swim leg can trigger fight or flight impulses. Choppy or murky water, not having a black line on the bottom, and having a lot of people around can cause anxiety for even the most experienced pool swimmer.

Here are some tips and tools that’ll help you prepare for the swim leg of a triathlon.

Find a Masters Club

Look for a Masters Swimming program that’s convenient for you and talk with the coach or other swimmers about your upcoming swim. They love new members and have a wealth of information about training and technique.

If you only have a limited swimming background, don’t let the word “Masters” intimidate you. You don’t have to master swimming to join a Masters club. Masters swimming means swimming for anyone who’s an adult. Swimmers of all talent levels are welcomed and encouraged.

If you’re an experienced swimmer, Masters programs probably have a lane of people who can push you to swim faster and hold you accountable, and a coach who can help you develop a training plan and improve your technique.

No matter what, joining a club can help you improve drastically and quickly.

Simulate the Conditions

Try to do open water simulations once a week. These could be fun sets for you and your teammates, who might be willing to try something different.

The first 100 to 200 meters of any open water race or triathlon is crowded with bodies, meaning there’s a lot of contact. Get accustomed to crowded conditions well in advance in the safety of the pool.

As much as we dislike crowded lanes, they provide an opportunity to practice swimming in a very small space and frequently come in contact with other swimmers. Swim a length side by side with three swimmers at the same pace for the length. When you get better, learn to flip on cue and swim multiple lengths together.

If you can pull the lane lines out of the pool, you can have a group swim together. Have swimmers take turns being a “turn buoy” and swim a big rectangular pattern making clockwise (or right shoulder) turns and counterclockwise (or left shoulder) turns. The turn-buoy swimmer can be practicing vertical kick, harass the swimmers passing by, splash them with kickboards, or all of the above.

It seems like chaos and lack of an organized practice, and it is. But that’s the start of a triathlon. Get comfortable swimming in chaos and enjoy swimming in chaos. That kind of practice will pay huge dividends in your open water swim.

Practice in the Environment

Swim in a location that’s as close to the environment the triathlon will be held in (or swim at the location of the race itself, if possible). Some Masters clubs are doing open water swims at a nearby lake or ocean beginning in the spring, so join in.

Open water clinics can help you overcome fears and anxiety, navigate surf, practice the start and finish. Also practice sighting so you can swim in a straight line on race day.

Don’t forget: When you swim in the open water, always swim with at least one other swimmer and wear a brightly colored cap so boaters can more easily spot you. You should also never swim when conditions are unsafe.

Final Thought

Preparing for the swim leg of your triathlon or an open water swim might seem overwhelming, but don’t worry. Focus on becoming acclimated to swimming in uncontrolled, natural conditions that might change each day. Expect and embrace them. Imagine swimming in most any conditions with no walls and feeling the freedom and connection to the natural environment. How great is that?


  • Triathlon


  • Training
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon