Open-Water Swimming Tips From The Pros

Two-time Abu Dhabi Triathlon champion Julie Dibens and Ironman winner James Cunnama share five rules of a successful open-water swim.

Photo: Nils Nilsen

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Two-time Abu Dhabi International Triathlon champion Julie Dibens and Ironman winner James Cunnama share five rules of a successful open-water swim with a group of local high school students.

Rule 1: Keep your space

“In the pool, you’re in a lane by yourself. In a triathlon, you have 50, 100, even 200 people trying to get to the same spot. It’s hard to stay in a straight line. You have to figure out how to make the most of it and get a draft,” says Dibens.

“Don’t hang on to a boat, kayak or buoy [before a deep water start],” adds Cunnama. “It doesn’t make a good start because something is in your way. It’s hard to get a good kick in. Get some space.”

PHOTOS: Abu Dhabi Swim Clinic

Rule 2: Run when you can

“For a beach start, you want to run as far as you in into the water without falling over because most people are faster running than swimming,” advises Dibens.

Cunnama adds, “Once you’re up to the thighs, it’s hard to get that dive going,” so leap in the water once it’s up above the knees.

Rule 3: Control your breathing

“At the start of a race, your heart rate is going to be very high, so for the first couple hundred meters, I breath to one side and get to bilateral breathing later on [in the race],” says Cunnama.

Dibens adds, “Bilateral breathing is a great skill. It helps you watch certain people and see where you’re going, but I definitely have a favorite side during a race. I prefer my left.”

Rule 4: Exit quickly

Rather than standing up as soon as possible at the swim exit, Dibens recommends to “swim in as far as you can” toward the shore. “Once your fingers start scraping the sand, stand up,” says Cunnama.

Rule 5: Watch where you’re going

Without lane lines to keep you on course, sighting becomes very important. “Eyes up at the start of a stroke,” says Cunnama. “Look forward, then turn your head to the side and take a breath before dropping the head back into the water. Dibens adds “And don’t lift your head too high, just enough to have a look. Using a buoy to sight is okay, but they’re not huge, so ideally you want something big like a tree, building or mountain that’s behind the buoy.”

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.