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I am considering training for a triathlon and wondered what the best approach is when starting out with open water swimming?

Also would you recommend buying a wetsuit straight away?

Does it tend to be a lot harder when swimming outdoors?

Thank you in advance!

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2 Answers 2

I faced the same challenge about 2 1/2 years ago. That is, no swimming background but wanted to try open water swimming.

Based on my own trial and error path, I would recommend the following:

  1. Learn to swim without a wetsuit first. It is a non trivial task since swimming is a technically demanding sport (contrary to what I thought initially). The big upside is with a good technique in a triathlon context, you will spend much less energy on the swim part and be in better shape for the biking and running.

  2. Get a technical trainer for the swimming. Not a coach that only tells you to swim "10x100m" etc. If you are new, there are a lot of small details that are important in the long run.

  3. Get a friend to practice with. You can then work on both the distances, e.g. the "10X100 etc" and the technique together.

  4. Swimming outdoors is different from indoors (waves, sounds, objects in water, temperature, lack of sight etc). But with a good technique and lots of practice, it is less stressful.

  5. Wetsuits can be difficult to put on and swim with initially. Try it out before - preferable in the water - you buy it. Some shops will let you do this, for example, at swim camps.

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If you don't have a swimming background, then you need to learn to swim in a controlled environment before you move to open water. This may mean lessons, or if you had lessons as a child, then getting into swimming shape. I would recommend swimming in a pool until you can swim (at a minimum) 1.5 - 2x the distance of the triathlon in a single session. For example, if your triathlon swim is 500m, then you should be able to swim 750-1000m.

For the wetsuit, it's important to know if your triathlon has a history of not being wetsuit legal. Over a certain temperate (78F/25.5C in the US), you are not allowed to wear a wetsuit. If it is generally a wetsuit legal swim, a wetsuit is a very good aid, even for experienced swimmers.

For the open water acclimation, get with a buddy either swimming with you or in a support boat of some kind. The water will have poor visibility, taste funny, move independent of you, have waves, etc. It can be intimidating the first couple of times. Go in small increments close to shore before moving further out into the water. Be aware that if you are in a recreational area, there may be restricted swimming areas and/or motorized watercraft zipping around that may not see you.

Practice, practice, practice. The biggest thing I see in triathletes that are not good swimmers is that they tend to wander side to side and get way off course. A way to test this is to swim in a lane with ropes, and close your eyes. If you keep hitting one of the ropes, you have a stroke imbalance somewhere. Also learn/practice sighting, or looking ahead on the course to pick out your target. You should be able to do this while still swimming, you shouldn't have to stop. If you do tend to wander, you may have to sight more often.

A proper fit on the wetsuit is critical, as if it doesn't fit then it can hamper your swim, chafe, bind, etc. Also, some people tend to feel claustrophobic the first couple times in a suit as they are very restrictive. If this is the case, you can look at overall (bib john) type suits, or leg only.

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Two good reasons to start in a pool: you may swallow a lot of water learning to side breathe, and you won't drown. (I barely made it across the first time I tried open water swimming, even on my back.) –  Noumenon Jul 2 at 4:19

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