Open water swim races are vastly different from races at a traditional swim meet — there are no walls to push off of, you’re swimming longer distances, and you have to contend with whatever conditions Mother Nature throws your way, all while somehow swimming in a straight line!
And on top of that, you’re jockeying for a spot with hundreds of other swimmers who are all headed for the same finish line.
Whether you’re preparing for your first open water race, a triathlon swim, or you’re looking to take your open water racing skills to the next level, check out 5 open water swimming tips to help you overcome race-day jitters and swim a solid race.
1. Do Pace Work
The first step to a good open water race is to put in the work during training!
Mastering your race pace will help you avoid going out too fast at the start and conserve energy so you can surge to the finish.
Work on maintaining your goal race pace (plus or minus a few seconds) in the weeks or months leading up to the race so your body is ready to perform. It’s important to practice swimming at different speeds, rather than swimming your workout straight at one pace. Break up your workout into shorter sets with a goal.
For example, if you’re training for a 1,500-meter race and your goal time is 30 minutes, you could swim a set of 3×500 freestyle on 11:00, with a goal to hit race pace (10:00 per 500).
2. Train in Your Race-Day Gear
If your race day kit includes something that you don’t normally train with every day, make sure you’re used to swimming in it before race day comes around.
If your race is wetsuit legal, incorporate a few training swims wearing the wetsuit so you know how to get it on and how the suit affects your stroke — especially your shoulder mobility. Also consider if you’re going to wear different goggles, double up your cap, or wear special sunscreen or anti-chafe cream and incorporate those, too.
If your swim is longer than a few kilometers, you should also practice incorporating nutrition and hydration. It’s not a good idea to try out a new nutrition gel on race day! Fine tuning your nutrition schedule during a few training swims will help you feel your best throughout your race!
3. Do a Proper Warm Up
Just like at a traditional swim meet, you need to warm up before an open water race!
Before hopping in, run through 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretching to get your blood flowing. Examples include jumping jacks, arm swings or arm circles, and even some light core work.
After your dynamic warm up, hop in for a 15-30-minute swim. It’s not always an option to swim before the race kicks off, but take advantage of it if you can! Swim easy freestyle and incorporate some higher intensity swimming, but don’t tire yourself out.
4. Learn to Draft
Open water races can be chaotic and crowded, especially at the start. Learn to draft and save up to 30% of your energy!
When you draft, you’re taking advantage of the small wave the swimmer in front of you creates. They’re cutting through the water first, which makes your job easier. Ideal drafting position is between the other swimmer’s ankles and hips, slightly to the side. The faster the swimmer, the more you will benefit from drafting.
You shouldn’t rely on drafting for your entire race (that is considered bad sportsmanship), but it’s a helpful skill that can give you a boost.
5. Preview the Race Course
In the days leading up to your race, familiarize yourself with the race course. Look at a map and find out where the buoys are going to be (if any), and how far apart they are. Will you be swimming multiple laps of the course, or just one? Will you have to contend with a current?
Related: How to Swim Straight in Open Water
If possible, go for a training swim at the race location starting from the same spot your race will start. This way, you can get a feel for the location and potential conditions.
If you can’t get a pre-race swim in, spend time visualizing your entire race, from start to finish, using the map as your guide.
Bonus Tip: De-Risk Your Race
When swimming or racing in open water, you want to reduce as much risk as possible. Open water introduces tons of extra factors you need to consider:
- Water Temperature: Be prepared for hotter or colder conditions than what you usually train in.
- Visibility: If you train in a pool, it might take some time to adjust to open water, where you can’t always see the bottom! You should also practice sighting in the pool so you’re able to swim straight in open water! Get sighting tips >
- Swimming with Others: Practice swimming in close quarters with other people to simulate the chaos of race day. If you have a few training buddies, squeeze into one lane and do a “team pursuit” set that requires you to be on each others’ feet for a while.