As a seasoned competitive pool swimmer, I never imagined that the transition from pool to Open Water would be such a big thing until I did my first triathlon in Mauritius in Aug 2002 and I LOVED IT! Since then I have dabbled in many more triathlons and embraced the open water swim element of it, encouraging and succeeding in helping others to feel the same.

Despite the fact that the swim leg is the shortest leg of the race & generally requires the least amount of training hours of all 3 disciplines, it’s the one discipline that many fear and neglect the most in training.

Many triathletes are quick to tell you how much cycling and running they do but when asked about time in the water, it’s as good as never. In triathlon we talk about TITS = time in the swim, time in the saddle and time in the shoes – each one is as important as the other.

How to improve your stroke and swim speed

Swimming is harder to master than cycling or running. If you know or feel your stroke has a mind of its own, invest in some one on one stroke correction & technique sessions. In these sessions, your coach will take you through a series of drills specific to what your swim stroke and level of swimming may require. At this point, I suggest investing in a pair of short fin flippers, small hand paddles and a pull buoy. Certain drills are best performed with flippers; small hand paddles are great for technique, forearm and shoulder strength (and less impact than the big ones) and a pull buoy simulates swimming with a wetsuit. Pull buoy and paddle sets are found in almost every triathletes training session.

Joining a swim squad can be intimidating, but a good swim coach will do their best to accommodate all levels in a swim squad and continue to correct your stroke and incorporate drills, technique, speed and endurance sets in your training.

The benefits of a coach are someone to watch over you and correct you when necessary; someone to set you off on the clock and ensure that you don’t take double the rest you need; someone to challenge you and someone to be accountable to when you choose to miss a few sessions.

Pool to open water, why is it so different?

Wetsuit/non-wetsuit, underwater life, water temperature, swells, currents, mass starts, adrenalin, sighting, no wall to hold on to, nowhere to stand and not being able to swim breaststroke in a wetsuit are just a few of the differences between swimming in a pool vs open water. Just like trail running can be so different to road running, so is pool swimming to open water swimming.

If you are a weaker swimmer or relatively new to the discipline, your best option is to practice all of the above and acclimatize accordingly. Limiting yourself to pool swimming in a heated indoor pool with no open water practice or exposure will make your swim leg a lot harder than it should be. You want to finish the swim feeling like it was a “warm up” for the bike and run.

Find a swim group in your area that offers open water swims and practice swimming with others in the ocean, local canals or dams. An added bonus is if the person who runs those swims is a swim coach or experienced triathlete – ask them for advice and input and allow them to ease you in to your first open water experience. One of my most special moments was an early morning canal swim with a newbie – he was petrified and needed some serious convincing. A few meters in to the swim, he rolled on to his back, spotted a bright star in the sky and saw his late father watching over him – the rest is history.

On race day…..

Unless the idea of being an obstacle and having people swimming over you sounds like fun, seed yourself according to your actual ability and not what you wish you could do. If this is your first big triathlon and swimming is not your thing, hang back, walk or jog slowly in to the water and ease in to the swim. The same applies to experienced open water swimmers who are not necessarily front of the pack swimmers.

SIGHT REGULARLY with crocodile eyes (not with your whole head out of the water) and do your best to head straight to the next buoy and not wide of it. Rounding the buoy a little wider can save you a breaststroke kick in the chest and keep you away from the messy white water created by fellow swimmers.

If the person in front of you is swimming slower than you, TAKE THE SHORTEST ROUTE around them and keep moving forward, don’t stop, swim breaststroke or panic.

As the swim leg is the one leg where DRAFTING IS PERMISSIBLE and advantageous, if the person in front of you is swimming at a good pace which you feel you can hold too, draft them. Following their bubbles and swimming directly behind them or just to the side of them can save you a lot of energy, but tapping their toes is not recommended J

Your KICK SHOULD BE LIGHT & REGULAR with an 80:20 pull/kick ratio. In the last 100-200m more emphasis on the kick will encourage the blood to flow in to the legs and help with the run up to T1.

Most importantly, enjoy the water, keep calm and settle in to a rhythm as soon as possible – after all, all good things love water.