• Alameda Tri Team

Basics Of Open Water Swimming (by Eimear Mullan)

One of the most important skills you need to learn is how to sight

For many people, open water swimming can be the most daunting part of triathlon training and racing. Even some very skilled and competent pool swimmers have a fear of the open water. For most, it’s about becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. Even when I won my first Ironman, I wasn’t completely comfortable with swimming in the open water; at the time, I didn’t really enjoy it, which meant I didn’t practice it much. It was very different and new to me and I actually lost well over 10 minutes to the fastest swimmer due to a lack of open water skills and low confidence. Since then, I’ve developed my skills and now love swimming outdoors and the sense of freedom it brings.

The pool is the perfect place to prepare for outdoor swims; it also gives you the opportunity to keep practicing your skills all year round when for some of us outdoor swimming isn’t an option.

Once you are confident that you can comfortably complete your chosen race distance in the pool, you can then introduce some key skills that can easily be developed before venturing to your nearest beach, river or lake. I will outline some of the most basic and important skills for moving from the pool to outdoor swimming.


One of the most important skills you need to learn is how to sight. This involves looking forward as you swim to help keep you going in a straight line. When you swim in open water, you will want to focus on or sight a fixed point in the distance, such as a landmark, tree or buoy to keep you swimming in a straight line and in the right direction. With no tiles or lane ropes, it’s very important to practice sighting and it’s very easy to work on this skill in the pool. Include some sighting practice in your warm up and warm down and you’ll soon get used to it. You can practice sighting something on the pool deck such as a water bottle or a clock. Try to perfect it, only lifting your eyes out of the water to sight so you don’t upset the rhythm of your swim stroke.

Treading water

It might seem obvious, but it’s important to make sure you are confident with treading water. Use some of your pool time to practice, as you won’t have walls to hang on to or push off in the open water.


Turning is something that you will most likely need to do when racing, sometimes numerous times. The turns in triathlon racing are usually around buoys; it’s easy once you have the hang of it but it does take practice. You can practice turning in the pool especially if you have a willing friend to help you out. Ask a friend to act as a buoy and practice turning around them.


For open water swimming, it can be very useful to learn to breathe to both sides (bilateral breathing). It may feel very odd at first, but with practice it will become more comfortable. You don’t need to bilateral breathe all the time, but it’s a useful skill in the changeable environment of the open water where you can have many elements such as sunlight, waves, choppy water and other people affecting you and your stroke.

Group Practice

Swimming in a large group for the first time can be quite a shock, so practicing in the pool is a great way to introduce you to it and to help you get used to it. Practice swimming in one lane with 3-5 people taking turns in different positions and at different paces, it will give you much more confidence especially when it comes to racing.

Once you have prepared yourself for the open water swimming, you’ll have nothing (or much less) to fear when it comes to it. I would always recommend trying some open water training swims before your first open water triathlon. For safety, always make sure you have a group or at least one other person to swim with. If the water is cold, make sure you have a good fitting wetsuit, it will make a huge difference to how comfortable (and fast) you are. Don’t panic, stay relaxed and calm, and enjoy the freedom of open water swimming.

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