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1. Check in with a lifeguard
Aside from making sure a lifeguard is on duty, check in with him before you get in the water, Cox suggests. “Unlike a swimming pool, ocean and beach conditions are constantly changing, but lifeguards know where the riptides are, if there’s been recent shark activity, and what the water quality is like,” Cox says. If you’re a bit more experienced, and you feel comfortable swimming without a lifeguard present, check with a local swim club regarding ocean conditions, she adds.
2. Breathe on both sides
If you’re teaching yourself basic swim strokes, make sure you learn how to breathe on both sides—not just one. There are a couple reasons for this. “Breathing on your left and on right side every three to five strokes allows you to watch out for kite surfers, windsurfers, sail boats, power boats, and marine life,” Cox says. “It also balances out your swim stroke, diminishing your chances of getting swimmers shoulder.” When you always breathe on one side, you run the risk of straining the muscles and joints, and are far more likely to drift on a diagonal. When breathing, focus on exhaling through your nose while your face is turned down in the water, then turning your head to the side to take a quick gulp of air out of the side of your mouth, trying to keep your head as low to the water as possible, Marsh says. “Keep your head straight and in line with your spine the whole time.”
3. Enlist a swim buddy
A swim partner helps keep you accountable, safe, and working hard. The same goes for a swim buddy. “Swim with someone who knows how to do the cross chest carry, and is strong enough to pull you out of the water if you have a problem,” Cox says. “It’s a good idea to practice this rescue technique during workouts before you have a problem.” This is especially true if you’re training for a long-distance open-water race. “If a swimmer gets a cramp, has any type of seizure, or bumps his head, the situation can turn dangerous quickly,” Marsh adds. “If you must swim alone in open water, do so with a floatation device nearby and be aware of any surrounding boats.”
4. Swim in a designated swimming area
Most state parks, beaches, and lakefront areas have designated times where swimming is allowed, as well as flags indicating borders in which you can swim. “If you’re in an area without a designated swim zone, swim with a qualified kayaker or qualified Zodiac boat operator who can safely guide you and can pull you out of the water in an emergency,” Cox says. Don’t have access to either? Ask a friend to walk the shoreline or stand guard while you swim. (You might have to double back frequently so your friend can keep you in sight and get to you quickly should you need help.) Bottom line: Never swim alone.
5. When in doubt, get out
“If you’re in the water and something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t,” Cox says. Maybe the current is starting to get rough, a storm is approaching, or your body is struggling to keep up (due to muscle cramps, fatigue, exhaustion). Get out of the water and come back another day. “If you’re up against a tide, relax, and slow down,” Marsh advises. “Don’t try to fight nature, as this will tire yourself unnecessarily—and the tide will likely change in minutes.”
6. Stay alert
“You’re in a wild environment,” Cox stresses. “You must be aware of what’s going on around you, and listen for motor sounds.” Take your head out of the water and look straight ahead periodically to make sure you’re not headed toward something potentially dangerous, or that you’re not drifting too far from shore. “It’s very important to practice swimming freestyle with your head up, so you can check the buoy markers during the race and continue to swim as straight to the goal as possible,” Marsh adds. This is also crucial during races. The swim portions of triathlon are notoriously crowded. Look up to make sure you don’t swim into anyone or get kicked in the head.
7. Take a break if you need
“It’s OK to, on occasion, flip on your back and enjoy some of the scenery during your open-water swims,” Marsh says, especially if this is new for you. Also, if you swallow water, relax, slow down, and collect yourself while treading water for a few seconds, he says. It’s common to feel panicked if you can’t get your breathing right at first—especially if you’re competing in a long-distance race for the first time. You want your strokes and pace to be controlled, so take time to reset yourself if things become a bit erratic.
8. Wear a wetsuit
While not totally necessary, wearing a wetsuit drastically improves your buoyancy and your body’s insulation. Full-body wetsuits are ideal for open-water swimming, especially if the water is cold. They can also help your body regulate its temperature, so you can focus on keeping your breathing and strokes controlled. If you’re freezing, you run the risk of rushing and becoming frenzied. If you get tired, the suit will also help you float so you don’t have to work as aggressively to tread water.
9. Learn when to draft and when to drift
“Try to work with other swimmers by drafting (swimming within a few feet behind another swimmer or at their side) off each other. Unlike pool swimming, where everyone stays in their lane, open water can be much more physical,” he says, but drafting can ease some of the toll by lessening the drag. Stay close but be respectful of other swimmers’ space (e.g., don’t claw your partner’s feet every other stroke). Also, be wary of hectic events, especially in race scenarios—triathlon swim starts can be very crowded. In this case, you might be most comfortable drifting to the outer edge of the race borders to limit congestion and gain a clear swim path.
10. Pace yourself
If you’re a beginner, take your time and build your effort throughout the swim, Marsh says. “Take regular freestyle ‘breaks’ by taking relaxed breaststroke or backstroke,” he suggests. You don’t want to blow your engines in the first 300 yards. “On race day, to get your best and fastest time, swim strong at the start to establish a position among the highest-level pack (groups of swimmers often break off into drafting packs),” he recommends. Keep your tempo consistent and as high as possible, keeping in mind the distance of your race. When you see the finish line, give it all you’ve got.
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