Transition from the pool to open water with these triathlete-tested tips

By Amy Schlinger
August 14, 2014

You might be a fish in the pool, where visibility is clear, waves are nonexistent, and a handy wall clock tracks your pace. But swimming in open water is another beast entirely. "The ocean presents a living and dynamic environment that's less familiar for many people," says Matt Dixon, elite triathlon coach, founder of Purplepatch Fitness, and author of The Well-Built Triathlete-and that can lead to nerves or even panic. For first-timers and seasoned vets alike, here are Dixon's tips for conquering open-water anxiety and becoming a stronger swimmer out in the surf.

Wear Goggles


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You might not be able to see much below the surface, since visibility differs from place to place (don't we all wish we were swimming in the Caribbean), but goggles still provide a measure of benefit. "Swimming in a straight line is one of the keys to success for novice swimmers, and goggles give you the best chance of proper navigation," Dixon says.

Be Sure to Sight


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Sighting, or looking to a fixed point ahead of you, is just as important in the ocean as it is in the pool to ensure you're moving efficiently in the direction of your end point. Before getting into the water, look around for landmarks that you can use to sight, such as a boat or the coastline. "Integrate sighting into the natural rhythm of your stroke by lifting your head up, looking forward, and then rotating your head to breath," Dixon says.

Size Up the Waves


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"If you're swimming into waves with a large break, it's much better to drop or dive under them," says Dixon. "You must get deep enough, though, to allow the moving water to pass over you without picking you up." If the waves are smaller, there's no way to dodge them. Simply aim to keep your stroke rate up and accept that it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Don't Focus on Distance Per Stroke


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"Much of what you read about swimming focuses on reducing the number of strokes you take, but that's not appropriate for open-water swimming, especially for amateur athletes," says Dixon. Trying to maintain a relaxed and smooth recovery-or "high elbow" as it's sometimes called-will only cause your hand to catch more frequently, leading to early fatigue. Instead Dixon suggests training yourself to employ a straighter (but still supple) arm during recovery and to maintain a faster stroke rate.

Accept That You Will Swallow Water


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There's no avoiding it. In order to reduce how much you down, be sure to breathe out entirely when your head is in the water. Spending time exhaling even a little bit as you turn your head to breath can mess with your timing, leading to shorter breaths and greater likelihood of sucking in ocean.

Break Down the Distance



Sometimes the current and lack of visibility in the ocean can make you feel like you're not going anywhere. "Use landmarks or buoys to help break down the entire course into smaller ‘projects' and gain some perspective on the distance swam," says Dixon. If there are no steady objects, he recommends counting strokes and treating every 50 to 100 or so to mark progress.

Start Races Easy


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If you're racing for the first time, begin by getting into the water waist-deep and familiarizing yourself with your surroundings. Line up to the side of the swim group and start at a slow pace, Dixon suggests. Sometimes starting about five seconds behind the crowd can give you the space you need to get into your groove without feeling overcrowded. "In open water races, most amateurs start too hard, almost in a state of panic," says Dixon. "Instead, build your effort throughout."

Relax and Refocus


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Develop a calming mantra during training to help you relax and slow your breathing. If panic strikes mid-race, turn onto your back and float or switch to an easy breaststroke and repeat your mantra. Panic is common, Dixon says, but the important thing is that you regain control and settle your breathing so that you can reengage in swimming.