Now that you've done a triathlon or two, it's time to refine your open water swim. Here are some tips to make your next open water event your best yet!
Proper breathing is the key to staying relaxed in the open water. Remember to keep a steady exhale when your face is in the water. Besides helping you stay relaxed, exhaling also helps you maintain good body position.
When your lungs are full of air, your torso will be much more buoyant than the rest of your body, even in a triathlon wetsuit. Exhaling steadily helps you stay level.
You may be tempted to avoid a lot of kicking during your swim in an effort to "save your legs" for the bike and run. But your kick does more than just propel you forward, a good kick also helps keep your legs and hips up in high on the water.
And, it helps balance your stroke while you rotate to the side for a breath. Try the 6-kick side drill in the pool to illustrate this: With one arm out in front of you and the other at your side, swim on your side and do six kicks. Then swim one stroke and do six kicks on your other side. Experiment with your kick to find a rythm that works best for you.
Shorten Your Stroke
If you watch efficient pool swimmers, you may notice how long and fluid their strokes look. While a long stroke works great in the calm of the pool, it's not always the most efficient in choppy open water. For open water, try shortening the front of your stroke a little and increasing your turnover or cadence.
This will allow you to punch through the waves and keep your stroke steady in uneven water. If you can't practice this in open water, try it out in the pool. A slightly shorter stroke works well in a full-sleeve wetsuit too.
Most swimmers have one side that's stronger than the other which can cause them to swim off at an angle when they're in open water. Try swimming a length of the pool with your eyes closed. Did you run into a lane line?
Whichever side you ran into is likely your weaker side. Work on strengthening that side (left if you swam to the left, for instance). Besides giving you a good view of the course and the competition, bilateral breathing can also help keep your stroke balanced and straight. Of course, there can be currents in open water, too, so you may have to over-compensate on one side or the other to maintain a straight course.
It's not allowed during the bike leg, but drafting in the swim is a great way to save energy. If you're a confident swimmer, line up in the front of your wave and be prepared to sprint off the line to catch the fastest feet. If you know you're not going to be one of the first out of the water, wait a second or two for the swim to settle a little at the start and find another swimmer that's moving at a pace you're comfortable with.
Instead of following their feet, swim to the side between their hips and ankles to maximize your draft. Don't forget to keep sighting – you don't know for sure that your lead swimmer is staying on course! Grab a friend and practice drafting each other in the pool so you're comfortable doing it in your next race.
Keep Your Goggles On
You may have heard stories of other athletes losing their goggles during an open water swim, or perhaps you've experienced it yourself. An easy way to keep your goggles secure is by wearing 2 caps. Put on the first cap and your goggles as you normally would, then put the second cap on over your goggle straps. This is a good way to add a little more insulation when you're swimming in cold water, too.
Swim Exit & Transition
As you're approaching the water exit, start visualizing how you will run up to the transition and remove your wetsuit. Kick harder as you near the end of the swim to get your legs ready for the run up to the transition. Not all swims exit onto a beach, but if yours does, keep swimming until you run aground. It's much easier to glide along the top of the water than to wade through it.
Once you're upright, you can take your goggles off as you start jogging up to the transition area. Give yourself a chance to get your land legs back before you start running at full speed. Unless you have a really short run to the transition, wait to start unzipping your wetsuit until you are fully clear of the water. And if you wait until you are in the transition area to remove your cap and goggles, you are less likely to drop them and have to go back to retreive them.
Practice these techniques and you'll be ready to storm the open seas (or lakes, or other bodies of water!) in your next triathlon. Be sure to study the course you'll be racing so you know what skills you'll need. And feel free to stop in if you have questions or need anything before or after your event. Good luck!