Open Water Swim Tips

We have all been there, standing in the funnel of the start line just waiting for our turn to jump into either a lake or ocean churning with white caps and swells, or maybe its a calm day and the water is calmly waiting for the 1500-2500 humans about to churn it up. The chop of open water swimming is very daunting, the swim portion is already the discipline of a triathlon that results in people not even trying triathlon but throw in some emptiness and darkness of the open water it can be really terrifying.

The anxiety of open water swimming is compounded by the fact that combined with weather, masses of humanity, and currents the water can be very choppy and/or tough to swim in. Open water swimming does not have to be terrifying and even it is never going to be your favorite portion of a triathlon you can tackle it with grace and grit.

Here are some tips to navigating and being prepared for choppy and tough open water swimming:

The first thing to remember when it comes to open water, no matter the conditions of the water, is that things are going to happen and you have to just be ready for it. You will swallow water, you will get hit in the face with water, you will get tossed around, and you will probably get hit a couple of times this is a part of the journey and you just have to be OK with it. If you go into the water being OK with these things and expecting that they will occur the easier it is to swallow it when it does happen.

Managing Your Breathing

  • Breath more frequently

  • Breath as quickly as you can while still taking in enough water. A quick short gasp of air making sure that you still open your mouth but to suck in the air as quickly as you can so that you don’t suck in a bunch of water.

  • Roll over on your side further than you normally do keeping your mouth out of the water. This does not mean lifting your head and rolling only your head further to the side but rather gliding a little bit more and rolling over onto your side keeping your head in line with your body.


Normally when we sight we just want our eyes to come out of the water however when the water is really choppy you may need to lift your head a little bit higher than normal so that you can see over the tough of the chop. While it may seem counter intuitive but you can sight too often, when you sight you bring your head out of the water and that changes your body position causing your feet and hips to sink making it harder for you to pull through the water, find some feet to follow. Most swim courses, especially Ironman branded courses are fairly straight forward so as long as you find some good feet you can sight minimally.

  • Sight as quickly a you can, if you try to stay up for a long time the more you have the chance to get beat up by the waves.

  • Time your sighting with the swell. With chop or swell there is usually a pattern and if you can time the swell so that you breath and/or sight at the top of the wave so that you don’t get smacked in the face in the middle of sighting or breathing.

  • Pick your land mark that you choose to sight with a little higher up than normal to sight that way you can see it easier and faster.

Stroke Technique

Stroke technique is key no matter the type of conditions. Swimming is a technique driven discipline and the more spot on your technique the easier swimming will become, and more powerful it will become.

  • Good body position really focus on engaging your core, this helps with balance and stability so that when you get tossed around in the water you are more stable. (in reality this is important in swimming no matter what type of weather, or conditions you are swimming in).

  • Stay relaxed, try to let the water toss you are a little bit the more that you fight.

  • Good extension in your stroke focusing on keeping your front arm out in front of you as long as you can until the recovering arm takes place.

  • You want to travel as far as you can, power in the pull, anchoring against the water as you start your stroke and pull as hard as you can.

  • Try to stay in the water as long as you can, if you are out of the water then you risk the chance of getting tossed around.

Mental Status

Personally, this is one of the most important things when it comes to open water swimming or honestly triathlon in general. If you can go into something mentally prepared for it it really is a lot easier.

  • tell yourself to stay relaxed so that you don’t fight the water.

  • remember everyone else is in the same situation that you are in, they are fighting it too.

  • Focus on one specific technique piece not only will this help you to focus on something else besides the roughness but it will help you to remember your form cues.

Open water may always be a little bit scary but it does not mean that you can tackle it with grace, fortitude, and resilience and make your next open water swim the best one you’ve had!!