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16 open-water swimming tips every beginner triathlete needs

You’re an avid runner and a solid cyclist  so adding “complete a triathlon” to your list of must-dos seemed like a no brainer. But now that you’ve picked your race (yay!), it’s time to start training. And, in addition to logging lots of miles on the run and in the saddle, it also means getting comfortable on the swim.

Whether you’re a seasoned swimmer or you feel like a fish out of very deep water, open-water swimming is totally different than swimming in a pool. Add in race-day elements  potentially choppy water, fellow racers jostling for position all around you, no lanes to keep your aim in check  and you’ll quickly see why many aspiring triathletes experience intense moments of panic once they hit the water.

But fear not: Here’s advice for open-water swimming from 16 triathletes who have been there, swam it, and lived to tell the victorious tale.

1. Practice

“Sign up for swim-only races before you do the full triathlon. Train in open water and do point-to-point tracks, forcing yourself to be out in the soup on your own.” – Christopher Baker

2. Take it easy

“Slow and steady may not win the race, but just ease into it and take your time.”– Betsy Leto

3. don’t freak out

“Someone once told me, ‘When the water is not clear enough to see, get ready to feel unidentifiable things with your hands, face, and feet, and don’t freak out.’ Just keep swimming and avoid getting punched or kicked in the face.” – Juan Becerra


“You’re always taught bilateral breathing, but when you’re out there and the waves are coming from your left, just stick to breathing on your right side. This seems obvious, but, well, it didn’t come to mind during my first race, that’s for sure.”– Kristen Green Seymour

5. Train in open water

“If your race is in open water, which it probably will be, spend most of your swim training in open water. Training in pools and controlled settings doesn’t give the true experience of what the open water is like. Training in open water allowed me to understand for myself how to effectively adjust stroke and form when there are different tides, choppiness, etc. And if you’re worried about the cold water, use cold baths to adjust to the water temperature. This helped me get more comfortable with cool water temperatures, and had the bonus effect of helping ease muscle soreness and promoting recovery.” – Christian Shaboo

6. just hop in

“If you’re jumping off a barge or a dock, you can just sit down and hop in or ease yourself in. Keep an eye out for your fellow racers, but I know that for me, the thought of jumping into open water and going straight into the swim almost gave me a panic attack the first time I did it.”– Shannon Otto

7. find a coach

“Train with a coach to learn how to breathe. For a long swim, in particular, that makes all the difference.”– Daphne Matalene

8. train with a partner

“Swim with a partner so you can work on getting used to getting bumped, jostled, and elbowed in the face.”– Elizabeth Carr


“Practice sighting and always keep track of buoys or other landmarks. During my first open-water swim, I zigzagged all over the place because I thought I was swimming straight when I definitely was not. It wasted a ton of time and energy.”– Kiera Carter

10. hang back

“I panicked during my first few tris so now I just let basically everyone start in front of me.”– Theodora Blanchfield


“Practice in your wetsuit before the race.”– Teresa Webb


“It’s good to have a safety stroke. That way, when  not if  something happens that flusters you, you’ll know what to do. That may mean going to the backstroke or breaststroke for a bit to catch up and help you be more deliberate.”– Jonathan Cane

13. flip to your back if you panic

“Stay to the back and don’t be afraid to flip to your back. Much of the panic beginners experience is exasperated because they can’t breathe normally to calm down in the chaos. If you feel panicked, float on your back and catch your breath.”– Anna Rhea


“Visualize a mosh pit. Enjoy the chaos.”– Johanna Bjorken


“Sometimes it can feel like you’re breathing through a straw. Try to find a rhythm. What helps me is looking at the beautiful lake or surrounding nature at every stroke and remembering how lucky I am to be swimming in a gorgeous lake with lots of people.”– Whitney McFadden

16. “Don’t drink the water!”

– Joe Fox

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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