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3 Tips for Conquering Open Water Swimming

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Open water swimming can be intimidating for many athletes. Unlike pool swimmers, who have the benefit of clear water and black lines at the bottom of the pool for guidance, open water swimmers must brave the elements, boats, and sea critters while navigating on their own. An open water swim is the limiting factor for many would-be triathletes. Many first-timers to that sport feel as much accomplishment for making it out of the water as they do the entire swim-bike-run experience. But open water swimming need not be so intimidating, says Lynne Cox, one of the world’s most accomplished in the field.

At 15, Cox broke the men’s and women’s records for crossing the English Channel and has completed numerous crossings over a four-decade career in some of the world’s most challenging waters. Between the growing popularity of triathlon and open water swimming, which became an Olympic sport for the 2008 Summer Games, more people are getting into the water than ever before. That presents some challenges, from both a performance and safety standpoint. Here are three things Cox says swimmers should remember when swimming open water.

1. Safety first.

Pool swimmers, no matter how accomplished, never swim without a lifeguard present. But open water swimmers sometimes set caution aside, entering unguarded bodies of water. Cox recommends checking in with a lifeguard before entering the open water. “They’ve been watching the water all day—or all year—and they know the water quality, where the sandbars are and if there are stingray problems,” says Cox, whose books include the recently-released Open Water Swimming Manual: An Expert's Survival Guide for Triathletes and Open Water Swimmers. “Plus, it’s good to let the lifeguard know you’ll be out there.” Swim with others when possible. Swim caps are a must so you can be spotted by lifeguards, boats, and other swimmers. Cox recommends neon colors such as yellow, orange, or green.

2. Train in open water.

Many first-time triathletes join a masters swim program to learn proper stroke technique and build enough endurance to complete the swim. That’s good, but some never practice in the open water prior to a race. Even some experienced triathletes and open water swimmers make the mistake of the doing little training outside of the pool. Cox suggests getting in the open water frequently.

It’s possible to interval train, even if you don’t have the large clock and the definitive measurements of a swimming pool. “Use a watch for time and to set a pace,” she says. “Lifeguard stations often are about 200 yards apart and you can use other landmarks as well.”

3. Use the wetsuit as a tool—not for warmth.

Cox grew up swimming in Southern California in the chilly Pacific Ocean. She’s never worn a wetsuit, even when swimming in temperatures near freezing. If you’re racing in a triathlon or open water swim where most athletes will be wearing wetsuits, it makes sense to wear one yourself so as not to be at a disadvantage. But Cox says the mistake swimmers make is relying on wetsuits too much for warmth or as a safety blanket for early-season events when the athlete has done little open water swimming. As a result, the wetsuit becomes a way to compensate for the cold and lack of open water training, negating any natural advantage it might provide.

“If you train in the open water, you’ll acclimate to the cold water better,” Cox says. “Plus you’ll be ready for the tides and waves. Instead of wasting energy trying to stay warm, you can use that energy to move forward and the wetsuit will make you more buoyant and faster than you’d be otherwise.”

For more tips to swim stronger, visit www.CorePerformance.com/swimming.

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Swimming, Triathlon, Training, Sports Performance

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