For many people, swimming can be the biggest barrier to entering a triathlon. While the thought of slipping into a murky body of water with a huge group of strangers may not give you the warm and fuzzies, swimming doesn't have to be so scary. Here, two top triathlon coaches weigh in on how to conquer the swim without the panic.
Obviously, the best way to get used to open water swimming is to, well, swim in open water. But if you can't make it to a bay, lake or beach before race day, there are some tricks to try in the pool that can help minimize your fears.
For starters? Practice swimming with your eyes closed. "Many bodies of water we race in are dark with no semblance of clarity whatsoever," says Michelle Jezycki, a USAT Level I Triathlon Certified Coach and a Hyland's masters athlete in Washington, D.C. "This adds to your panic and can make you feel mentally defeated before you even get on the bike." Try swimming part of your sets with your eyes closed, focusing on getting more comfortable with your ability to swim straight.
More: 8 Tips for Open Water Swimming Newbies
Hundreds of triathletes rushing into the water at once, hands and arms waving wildly, feet kicking like motors just millimeters from your face. No doubt, swimming is a full contact sport. So it's best to get prepared in the pool. "Swimmers who are taken by surprise can stall in the water and slow down," says Jezycki.
To simulate the chaos that often ensues at the start of a swim, practice swimming in bunches with your lane mates. "We do sets where several athletes start in the lane simultaneously. This helps you learn to maintain composure if and when you're hit."
And at the start of the race? You may be anxious to get out there, but it's best for you to begin towards the back of your wave. "Let the aggressive swimmers go first," says Jennifer Purdie, a triathlon coach in San Diego. "It lessens your chances of getting whacked in the head or smacked in the face."
Once you're out there, take it easy and work your way from one buoy to the next, rather than focusing on how long the course looks. "Stay relaxed with long strokes," says Jezycki. "There is a tendency to shorten the stroke, which only tires you out sooner and wastes energy."
More: Train for the Triathlon Swim in 2 Hours a Week
Wetsuits aren't just for keeping you warm. The extra layer of neoprene can keep you relaxed, too, says Purdie. "Feeling more buoyant in the water can help subside your worries about drowning."
Don't have a wetsuit? No need to run out and buy one. Many online and local tri shops offer wetsuit rentals so you can take it out for a test drive before you fully commit to the sport.
More: What You Need to Know About Wetsuits
Nothing like losing your goggles to make you feel completely disoriented in the swim. To keep yours from slipping off your head, Purdie suggests securing yours over your hair—and underneath your cap. "That way, if you get hit by another swimmer, your goggles will stay on because they're protected by the cap," she says.
You may also want to race with wide-lensed goggles for a full field of view. "Test out a bunch to see what works for you," says Purdie.
Regardless of which goggles you choose, the best way to get a sense of where you are in the swim is sighting—or looking up to check where you are along the course. "It's easy to get confused as to where you are, especially since there's no black line to follow like a pool," says Purdie.
The key to keeping on course is sighting often. "You'll want to sight every 8 to 10 strokes," advises Jezycki. "Practice swimming while sighting so you are efficient and not going upright as you locate your next buoy." Also, picking out a landmark—like a building or a tree—along the swim course can keep you in line without having to look up so much. "Eventually you will be sighting less often and keeping good momentum," says Jezycki.
More: How to Sight Like a Professional Swimmer
Despite the practice and precautions, there's still a chance you'll hit a snag in the swim. And if you do? "Take a quick inventory of the extent of your condition," says Jezycki. "If you are losing your breath, switch to breaststroke or roll over on your back until you can regain your composure and get back to the forward motion."
Don't be afraid to hold onto a kayak if you have to, either. Says Jezycki, "It can be scary, but if you keep moving forward, you'll get to T1 before you know it."
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