- Open Water
Proper preparation can help you to be safe in your next open water swim
Whether you’re swimming for fitness in the open water or training for an open water race or triathlon, the person most responsible for your safety is you.
Yes, race directors, coaches, and teammates care about your well-being and will likely do their best to ensure your safety. But you, as the open water event participant, play the most important role in your own safety.
Ensuring a safe swim, whether you’re a beginner or an elite swimmer, means taking responsibility for yourself by being prepared both in and out of the water, a process that starts long before you get in for your first swim or on race day.
What to Do Before You Start
Assess your physical health and mental toughness
Understand how any medications you’re taking might affect you in an extreme environment under stress. Know your body, how it reacts, and how it performs. As with any new training regimen, you should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting.
Once the day comes for your first swim or race, don’t swim if you’re not feeling well or have been sick. Seemingly minor symptoms or discomfort can quickly become amplified when you put your body under stress.
If you tend to panic quickly or get uncomfortable when you’re out of your element, work on it before entering a race. Build confidence in yourself by training in the open water, preferably the same or similar conditions you’re likely to experience on race day.
Know everything there is to know about the water you’re going to swim in. Is it freshwater or saltwater? What types of critters might you encounter? Is the course protected from the wind or can the wind create choppy and rough conditions?
Another important thing to know is the temperature of the water. If it’s below where you’re comfortable swimming and you don’t have a wetsuit, or the race you’re doing doesn’t allow wetsuits, you’re not properly trained to swim in water that temperature and should consider a different event.
The more you understand the environment, the less anxiety and discomfort you’re going to have. Speaking to someone who is familiar with the water, such as a fellow open water swimmer, lifeguard, or someone who has done the event before, is a great way to expand your knowledge and therefore comfort level.
This can’t be stressed enough: Train in the environment you plan to compete in. Pool swimming is a great way to stay in shape, but it doesn’t adequately prepare you for anything but calm open water conditions, and that’s not something you can count on for race day.
If you’re going to do a race in the ocean with a beach start where there are waves, train in that environment as much as you can. If you can’t get to the ocean to train, improvise by swimming in a lake when it’s windy with choppy conditions.
Create a race plan that incorporates everything you’ve learned about the event, your fitness level, and your experiences. Have a plan for the start, middle, and finish and follow your plan. If something has to change during the swim, don’t panic. Adjust your plan and continue swimming.
You should also review and study the course map so that you understand where the buoys are, the direction you’ll be swimming, and where safety support is located.
What to Do on the Day of Your Swim
Pay close attention to the safety briefing prior to the race. Detailed information about what to do if you get into trouble, where safety boats are located on the course, how to ask for help, etc., are provided in these briefings. Ask questions if you don’t understand something.
Although you’ve studied the course map before the race, you should inspect the course so that you make sure you understand it before the race starts. Knowing the course layout can greatly reduce your stress level. Once the race starts, stay on the course—not only to swim a fast time—but also because safety support craft are on the course.
If you get to the race and the conditions are outside your comfort levels or beyond what you trained for, such as unusually large waves or colder water, don’t start the race. Tell the race director that you’re just going to enjoy watching the swim. There’s no reason to push yourself beyond your limits. You can always sign up for another race, and watching the other swimmers compete can give you insight on swimming in those conditions.
Inform others if you get out
If you abandon the course before finishing, it’s critical that you tell someone working the race. If you’re wearing a timing chip, turn it in and tell the timer that you’ve pulled out. Don’t leave without telling the race staff that you quit the race—they may alert authorities and begin a search if they don’t see you leave the course early or at an unexpected location.
Be comfortable at the start
Avoid starting in the middle of the pack if you’re not comfortable there. Instead, start on the outside edge or at the back. This helps you avoid bumping into other swimmers. The start of a race can often be the most stressful part because of the volume of swimmers entering the water at the same time, all headed for the first turn buoy.
Wear proper gear
Wear a brightly colored swim cap. For most races, it’s mandatory to wear the one the race director provides. Caps help boaters and safety personnel see you in the water. Taking your cap off only makes it more difficult for safety support to provide assistance.
Have a buddy (or two or three)
Try to swim with someone who’s about your speed. By swimming near or with someone, you can increase your comfort and your fun. You can push each other while you’re keeping an eye on each other.
Like all outdoor activities, open water swimming has potential risks. But it’s a fun and exciting way to experience a new environment while getting a chance to do a sport you love. The feeling of accomplishment when you finish an open water race, the joy and freedom of being out in a natural body of water, and the friendships and bonds you can make in open water swimming are real and exciting.
When you jump into open water swimming, you need to remember that you’re most responsible for your safety. Following these safety recommendations will enhance your open water experience, whether you’re going out for a fun swim or a race.