10 Open Water Swimming Tips You Need To Know

  • Last Updated: July 1st, 2019

Below are some fantastic tips split into general training tips – giving you some useful drills to practice in training and some fantastic race day tips to help reduce anxiety and perform better in the big race.

General Training Tips

While it can seem daunting and even a little scary, open water swimming can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of triathlon.

These tips below are useful for those just getting into open water swimming or looking to develop their existing skills.

Practice, Practice, Practice

While cycling and running are all about strength and fitness, there’s a certain “art” to open water swimming that once you master, makes it immensely satisfying.

Thankfully, mastering this art is easy and it comes down to one thing – practice.

To do this, head online and track down your local open water swimming group and head down to one of their session.

Swimming with an open water swimming group lets you practice a wide variety of different skills all with the safety net of rescue boats and other swimmers.

Always Warm Up Pre Swim

Let’s be honest, the vast majority of open water swim events are cold – even with your wetsuit on, you’re still going to initially feel somewhat of a chill.

This means that a good pre-swim warm-up is super important.

Before you even enter the water, you’ll want to get the blood circulating around your body which means that active stretching is perfect.

Start with some arm swings, hip rotations and even some light skipping to get the blood pumping.

While it can be tempting to just dive straight into the water, we always recommend that you enter the water slowly to give your body time to acclimatise. Slowly wade in, giving your feet time to adjust before walking out slightly deeper.

Don’t forget to splash your face to help get your head use to the water as the last thing you want to do is lose your breath at the start (a major cause of what many triathletes think is panic!).

Shorter Swims At Race Pace

With no pool clocks to go off, it can be really tempting to plod round a set loop when swimming in a lake or ocean.

While these sessions are incredibly useful for building water confidence and endurance, they do very little to emulate race situations.

Instead, we recommend that you do shorter loops at either race pace or slightly above it.

Practice The Start

Personally, I think that TV coverage of big triathlon events has a lot to do with creating some of the fear around open water swimming!

Take a look at the video below to see what we mean…

If you’ve ever seen a mass start swim then you’ll know exactly what I mean!

While in reality the start of a swim isn’t actually as brutal as it looks, it does take some getting use to.

That’s why it’s super important to practice race start drills.

For those athletes who want to push during the swim, then you’ll need that initial blast of explosive speed before settling into your rhythm.

A good drill is to practice is to tread water for 30 seconds before swimming hard for 10m. Easy swim back to your start point and go again.

Repeat this drill three or four times and you’re done.

Swim In A Straight Line

I came to triathlon from a swimming background and when training in the pool with my first tri club, seemed to impress everyone with my prowess, regularly lapping others in the lane.

Yet during my first open water swim, I just couldn’t get a good gap on my club mates.

It wasn’t until I watched a video of me swimming that I realised what was going on.

Unlike the pool, there’s no black line to follow as you swim along and everytime that you wobble off course, you add meters to your swim which means it’s going to take you longer to cover the extra distance.

So how do you ensure that you stay on a straight line? This leads us on to our next open water swimming tip…

Practice Sighting

Along with bilateral breathing, being able to properly sight where you’re going when you are swimming can really help save time and energy in the water.

Every four to eight strokes, you should lift your head out of the water to take note of where the next marker buoy or waypoint is.

You should never try to sight and breathe at the same time as this is a recipe for swallowing a mouthful of water, particularly in choppy weather.

Get Use To Close Contact Swimming

This is another one that takes some getting use to if you’ve only ever swam in a pool where each session can feel like a procession of swimmers up and down.

During a triathlon swim, you’ll be literally shoulder to shoulder with other swimmers.

When you begin open water swim training, you should practice swimming in close proximity to other swimmers, even if there’s only a few of you out training.

This will make all the difference to you come race day.

Save Your Legs

Triathlon is a leg intense sport but you’ll often find that the strongest swimmers save their legs during the swim and make they way through the water using their upper body. You can practice this in the pool using, pull buoy to improve your swim and get your body use to how it should be positioned and rotate in the water.

Race Specific Swim Tips

As we mentioned above, the mass start of a swim can often be chaotic and often a little frantic with bodies in close proximity and adrenaline pumping.

These next few tips are going to be extremely useful for helping you navigate this opening challenge.

Know The Course

Most athletes spend their pre and post briefing time studying in the bike and run courses with only a cursory glance at the swim route.

It’s only natural given that the swim only makes up a small percentage of the race.

What you will find is that the better swimmers take time to study the swim route too – they enter the water with a crystal clear understanding of how the course runs, allowing them to almost feel the route.

Know Your Own Ability

If you’ve ever heard the horror stories of swimmer getting dragged, kicked, punched and even dunked during the first event of a triathlon.

You’ll often find that the athletes who suffer this most are those who overestimate their abilities in the water, go off too quick and then slowly get dropped by the pack.

For those new to open water swimming, pick a spot in the pack where you have fewer people around you (but still enough so you have some feet to follow and benefit from drafting). Towards the edge of a pack is always a good spot.

For those strong swimmers, unless you’re confident that you can drop your fellow competitors, it’s always good to be in the lead pack but sat on someone’s feet to allow you to draft and save energy.

Start Strong

If you want to be competitive in the swim then you’re going to have to go off hard.

Watch any race and you’ll see that the first 100m is when the different ability packs tend to form.

Good swimmers go out hard to get past those less competent swimmers and establish some clear water for themselves.


So there you have it, put these 10 open water swimming tips to good use and you can be almost guaranteed faster swim splits which could help you smash some personal best times!

Scott Holliday

Scott Holliday has been coaching athletes of all levels for over 10 years and is certified by the acclaimed International Triathlon Coaching Association (ITCA). He works with athletes of all abilities to help then unlock their potential.