Tips from Tri Training Harder - Taking the plunge: moving from the pool to the open water

For many people starting a triathlon, swimming, particularly open-water swimming, is the limiting factor in their participation. This is understandable; many people know how to ride a bike, and the run can always be walked, but for most, swimming is something they do on holiday, and even a length can be exhausting. Completing several hundred metres in the open water is daunting.

This article explores some top tips to conquer the open water and ensure a safe, enjoyable and effective open-water swim event.



Many new triathletes or multisport athletes spend most of their pool time honing their technique and practising in the strange water environment. The minute they move into the open water, they forget everything they have worked on and struggle. Firstly, there is a style of swimming that is more effective in the open water environment. A higher stroke rate, or quicker arm turnover, allows a little more rhythm for the stroke and enables a swimmer to cut through any chop or waves. However, this should be practised in the pool, not picked up only when swimming in this new environment. So, if you don’t have a higher stroke rate, don’t artificially create one when you move into the open water! Practice what you usually do.


Another thing that can disrupt stroke mechanics or feel is a wetsuit. Some of the best wetsuits in the world feel like swimming in a second skin. However, for many first-timers, their first wetsuit purchase is primarily cost-driven. This can make it feel quite restrictive. This video helps explain how vital wetsuit fit is in feeling better, more confident and looser in the arms and shoulders.

This, copious amounts of wetsuit lube or baby oil, and putting water down the front of your suit all help you have a better experience as you move into the open water. Remember, a wetsuit will usually always make you faster and on top of that, it makes you a little bit more “floaty”. As a result, although they may feel restrictive, if you get the fit right, they will feel more comfortable and can be doubled up to feel more confident in the open water. You can simply lie back and relax, and you will float to the surface.

Open-Water Skills


Like any sport, specific open water skills should be practised, which makes things different in the pool. Three clear areas can be improved. Sighting, Group skills and pacing.

Sighting is essential in open water races. First, to state the obvious, you must know which direction to swim. In an open-water event, you will have to sight to see where you are going. There are two styles of sighting: crocodile eyes, where only your eyes pop above the surface, and you can see where you are going or head-up sighting, where your head comes out of the water completely to see where you are going. Though the specific nuances of the two are beyond the scope of what you would need to know for your first open-water event, we suggest you try both in the pool and decide which you prefer. Remember, the aim here is to swim the shortest possible route, so sighting of any level is the most important. You can always update your skills as you progress through the season.

Group Skill

Group skills include a wide range of skills, including drafting and swimming, amongst other bodies. Again, here for your first open water event, the critical thing to know is that if you can swim behind someone’s feet, you have a lot of energy saving to gain by drafting off them. However, you must be comfortable swimming in and around other people. This can feel quite alien or claustrophobic for anyone unaccustomed to group swimming. This can be practised in the pool by swimming with a friend or a group and deliberately swimming close to each other. You may do lengths where you go all together 2-4 abreast as a group or in a long line, almost touching each other’s toes. The aim is to become familiar with being in and around other swimmers. When it comes to open water, you will have more space when you do a training swim, but in a race, many more people may be around you.

Pace Yourself

Finally, an essential skill for open water races is the ability to pace yourself. Practice in training starting the 1st length of 100m too hard and knowing what this feels like. Then try and get faster each length. Your ability to tweak your effort can really help you gauge your effort in the open water. Often, people start an open water race too hard, struggle to catch their breath and underperform or panic. Your ability to ensure you set off at an intensity you can sustain for the duration of the race is crucial. So, use training to get a good feel for this.

Cold Shock Response

Cold shock response is the way the body reacts to cold water immersion. In the first few minutes of immersion, your body may begin hyperventilation, your pulse may increase, and you may start to feel cold. Typically, you begin to have a gasp reflex. None of these symptoms are conducive to a successful swim. Add a sudden increase in output (the start of a race), and having to swim can cause swimmers to stop, struggle to breathe, or even have a panic attack. This can be common in experienced athletes or new ones, and often, it is down to how they entered the water in the first couple of minutes and nothing to do with their ability level or swimming.


As a result, one of the critical differences between pool and open water swimming is that athletes should take their time getting into the water. You can reduce the suddenness of the cold by getting your hands and fingers into the water and splashing cold water on your face. Finally, once you are in, putting water into your wetsuit will feel cruel. Still, afterwards, it will begin warming up, and all these aspects will reduce the cold shock response and enable you to become more comfortable in this environment.


The open water environment can be scary for several different reasons. For some people, it may be the depth; for others, there are anxiety factors. Both these articles can help you understand these processes.

For many people, the main thing to recognise is that it is a very typical experience, and many open-water swimmers have some level of fear. Normalising your feelings can really help. If you are nervous or afraid of the open water one of the most significant errors you can make in getting accustomed to it is diving straight in with a group. Find a coach or a trusted swimmer you can go in together, slowly and build your confidence. Sometimes, putting a wetsuit on, going waist-deep, and splashing water on your face is enough! Think baby steps. For some strong swimmers, the open water environment can be odd, which can put people off regardless of their swimming prowess! Don’t assume that you should automatically enjoy open water because you are a strong swimmer. Many don’t!

Racing Tips

When it comes to racing, for those people racing open water for the first time, here are a few top tips:

  • Arrive with plenty of time: it is always easier to put on your wetsuit with time to spare than rushing at the last minute
  • Use plenty of wetsuit lube or baby oil around your neck and shoulders. It is hard to use too much!
  • Find yourself some space if you are nervous. Start towards the back of the pack, or choose an edge to have space to move into if you are a little overwhelmed with the experience. Remove the stressors you can control.
  • Remember, you can always float in your wetsuit, so if you need to stop, you can reset.
  • Sighting may not make you a fast swimmer, but taking the shortest route, you can will lead to the fastest swim time you can manage!
  • Get comfortable in this environment. From swimming around other people to the difference of swimming in a murky lake compared to a clear pool, the more relaxed you are in this environment, the better your swim results will be.

Open-water swimming is one of the fastest-growing sports, with many people dipping and enjoying nature. However, racing in this environment can take getting used to. People should take their time moving from the pool to the open water. When they do, they can unlock one of the best aspects of triathlon training and racing.