DIY Open Water Swim Lesson

Can’t bring a coach along to your next ocean swim? Have no fear. Follow this step-by-step guide from coach Bryan Mineo.

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Can’t bring a coach along to your next ocean swim? Have no fear. Follow this step-by-step guide from coach Bryan Mineo.

The open water can either be an inviting place or a necessary evil to compete in triathlon, depending on your outlook. The key to making your navigation in the ocean (or lake or river) easier and more enjoyable is learning as much as you can about the dynamics of the water. To help create a safe, positive experience the next time you’re in open water, follow these steps, which I outline for my athletes during swims in the Pacific.

Check conditions

Standing on the shore, look out into the water, taking notice of the movement. In the ocean, each hour brings about different conditions. The better read you have on the water, the more prepared you will be to anticipate and work with its movement while swimming. Pay close attention to where the waves are breaking relative to shore. This will generally tell you where you need to dive under a wave, which could potentially be right away if the tide is deep enough. The tempo of the waves is also important to note before entering. Count the number of seconds between the break of each wave. In some cases, the frequency can be as often as every 3 or 4 seconds, and other times the waves can have a 10-second lull between them. When you get into the water, you’ll know how often to expect a wave to break so you can avoid getting blindsided and pounded on by the water.

Take note of landmarks

Take a glance around the shoreline and pick a couple of notable landmarks (in different areas) that stand out, such as a cell phone tower, a brightly colored building or a large tree. If you only rely on a race course’s buoys, the waves, other swimmers and foggy goggles could potentially interfere with visibility. The tall fixed objects you choose on land will help keep you on course at all times, regardless of the conditions in the water and other variables.

Get in tune with your breath on land

Before you begin swimming, listen to your breath for a minute. The relaxed, rhythmic nature of your breath on land is precisely what you want to replicate as you enter the water and begin navigating the waves. The importance of maintaining a conscious, smooth breath is to allow you to keep unwanted tension out of your body, as well as to set the cadence and effort of your stroke. You’ll hear me consistently saying, “Focus on your breath!” to my athletes while they’re in the water. This is my way of reminding them to use their breath as feedback. If your breathing is shallow and quick with moderate effort, something isn’t right. Always go back to the smooth breathing pattern you have on land by relaxing and setting your tempo with the rise and fall of the breath.

Investigate the bottom

Inch your way into the water until it’s over your head. From shore, it’s tough to know what the sea floor is like and where it gets deeper. It’s different everywhere. Some places are rocky; others have smooth sand bars or quick drop-offs. This is relevant to knowing how to best approach the swim entry. You wouldn’t want to sprint into the waves and dive into 12-inch deep water only to break your nose!

Navigate the surf

As you’re making your way out and coming back in, it’s imperative to keep sight of the waves. Don’t hesitate when navigating through the waves. As you begin swimming out past the breakers, make a decision as to whether you will dive under the wave or continue freestyle when the wave is 20 feet away from you. This distance will give you enough time to assess the phase of the wave and act accordingly. If the wave is cresting and about to break, dive deep before the wave reaches you to avoid getting pushed back by the momentum. Otherwise, allow the smooth swell to lift you up as you continue your stroke without hesitation. This all takes practice, and the more you do it, the better you will be able to understand and work with the water.

Learn to hit reset

Being able to press the “reset button” when needed is incredibly comforting in the open water. Going to a negative or anxious mind space is avoidable by focusing on the rhythm of your breath and allowing it to dictate the effort of your swimming. If you ever feel particularly fatigued or panicked, I recommend floating on your belly with your head raised, facing the movement of the water. Lightly sculling your hands back and forth will keep you in position to immediately begin freestyle once you’ve reset. When you’re calm and focused, continue swimming for your planned duration, allowing yourself to take a break if you need a moment to collect yourself.

Practice your shore approach

When you head back to shore, breath into your shoulder with each breath so that you can see the waves forming behind you. If a wave is breaking behind you, remember to dive deep with the wave to avoid its turbulence. Continue your freestyle until your hands are grabbing sand multiple strokes in a row. Only then are you ready to stand up and run with high knees onto shore. If you stand upright in waist-deep water, you’re likely to feel the push and pull of the waves slowing down your progress.

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Open Water Skills

Sighting: Sight often! Sync your sighting with your exhale. After inhaling on the left side, while your face is returning to the water with your left arm recovering forward, extend your head and neck forward to sight. Practice sighting in the pool at least once every 50 yards. This will help integrate sighting mechanics into your stroke so that they will be engrained when you get into the open water.

Tempo: Rhythm is everything in open water. The dynamic movement of the water makes it difficult to maintain the same momentum as in the pool. Practice using a water metronome (like a Finis Tempo Trainer) to create a smooth, balanced turnover in both the pool and open water. The goal is to sync the initiation of your pull with each beep of the metronome. Not only will it help balance your stroke mechanics from side to side, but it will instill proper timing of your pull (where your power comes from).

Drafting: Buddy up and practice swimming in close quarters, simulating a race scenario. Drafting can save significant energy, so it’s always wise to identify a draft buddy. Practice swimming in a line about one foot behind the other person’s feet. You should feel a steady flow of bubbles on your face from the swimmer’s kick if you’re within the correct range. A second option is to draft by swimming in line with another athlete’s hip. You can’t trust that another swimmer will lead you in the right direction, so be sure to maintain regular sighting even while drafting.

Entries and exits: The start and finish of an open water swim can be the most challenging parts. To get comfortable navigating the surf, practice circuits of swimming out past the surf and back into shore and onto the beach. It can be disorienting trying to stand up quickly to run on shore after swimming your race distance. A simple trick to help acclimate quickly is to flex your ankles in all directions a bit during your last stretch of swimming into shore. The more time you spend mastering these skills, the better you will handle conditions on race day.

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