Swimming – Open Water Techniques

Training Iconv1

Open water swimming is a key skill to work on and develop as most triathlons are held in open water it can differ a lot from swimming in a pool.  Some key tips will help you get more out of your racing and more enjoyment.

Top tips

  • Always view the swim course from land beforehand.  You may not be able to see much of the course, but you should view the entry to the swim and exit points.  Look out for possible sighting markers such as buildings or tall trees in line with turning buoys to help you sight throughout the swim.
  • Try to see if there is any kind of current.  A river swim for example, if you are swimming upstream try to stay to the side of the river where the current will be less if you are swimming with the current try to get in the middle of the river as much as possible to gain extra speed.
  • Try and get in the water as soon as you can to do a warmup.  This will also help you acclimatise to the temperature of the water as often it is a bit of a shock when you first get in.  Best way to get in is to take 3 deep breaths and put your head under the water.  If you are not allowed to get into the water to warm up prior to the start of the race you should do a run warm up on land to get your heart rate up so when you do start swimming you won’t go anaerobic as you will have already have got your heart rate up.

Putting on a wetsuit and getting it off fast

  • Use plastic carrier bags on your feet and hands to help you put on the wetsuit.  This will help the wetsuit go on much easier and you will be able to pull it up so that there are no creases in the suit.  Any creases will cause drag, so you need to make sure there are none. 
  • Use baby oil on your wrists, shoulders and ankles to help the wetsuit come off easier and quicker post swim.
  • Use body glide or Vaseline around your neckline to stop chaffing.  (As long as you rinse your wetsuit after the race the Vaseline will not damage your suit)!
  • When exiting the water as soon as you are upright start running towards the transition area and unzip your wetsuit and pull off your goggles and swim hat.  Pull the arms down and leave your goggles and swim hat in the arm of your wetsuit (you won’t lose them then) and pull the wetsuit down to your waist.  Once you get to your place in transition squat down in one go and pull your wetsuit down as low as you can and stand on it whilst you are putting on your helmet (if doing a triathlon or race belt if an Aquathlon).  If it still won’t come off your ankles use just your thumb like a shoehorn to get the last bit of the wetsuit off.
  • Make sure you have your name written on the inside of your wetsuit and put it in your transition place.  If your name and phone number are on your wetsuit at the end of the race if someone has taken your wetsuit by mistake that person can contact, you to return it.

Mass starts

  • Most triathlons and open water swims start with a mass start.  This can be daunting to most people as they see a thrashing of arms and legs.  It can be easy to get freaked out by this.  If you are a confident swimmer then when you are given a 1 minute or 30 second prompt
  • before the start of the race, then get onto your front with your arms sculling out to your sides and your feet up gently kicking breaking the surface of the water.  This will give you
  • some space around you, so others are less likely to swim over you but also gets you into the horizontal position ready for a quick start.
  • Once the gun goes start swimming fast for 10 – 12 strokes and then settle into your normal swimming pace.
  • If you are not a confident swimmer then go to the side or the back of all the other swimmers and ask those around you before the gun goes of their swimming ability.  Often you will find that others near you will be equally as nervous and this may actually help calm any apprehension you may have.


  • Sighting is one of the most important skills of open water swimming.  It can save you hundreds of meters of extra swimming and help you do the shortest possible route on the swim course.  Don’t rely on others in front of you to sight off they may be going the wrong way!
  • Ideally you need to sight every 6 – 12 strokes lifting your head up like a water polo player to sight to the point you need to go.  If you have looked at the course prior, you may have landmarks to help you sight if the buoys are too small to see or the sun is in your eyes making it hard to make out the turn points.  6 -12 strokes reduce the chance of you swimming off course as you won’t have swum too far in this time and can correct easily.
  • If you sight and don’t see what you are looking for sight again.  There is no rule to say you have to sight every 6 -12 strokes, but this will help your efficiency and speed.

Turn points

  • Make sure you know which buoys you need to turn at and which direction to turn!  The best way to turn quickly is to make sure you kick hard (this keeps your feet up and prevents people swimming over you) but will also help speed you up around the turn points which can be jam points as everyone converges together.  If you are not as confident swim a couple of meters wide around the turn points to avoid being bumped into.  Do a shorter inside arm stroke and a longer outside arm stroke.
  • If you are more confident and maybe out in front or only a few people around you may want to do the backstroke turn.  Only do this if there are not a lot of people near you as people may swim over you.  As your shoulder of the arm nearest the turn point gets level with the turn roll onto your back and do one back stroke arm whilst turning back into a front crawl stroke.  This will turn you quickly and easily.


  • Learning how to draft other swimmers is an easy way to increase your speed and reduce the effort in open water.  There are two ways to draft other swimmers.  The first is to swim directly behind them in the bubble area created by the person in front feet.  Try not to keep tapping their feet.
  • The second way is to swim with your head at the hip level of the person just in front of you, so they are slightly to the side of you.  You will still be in their slipstream.  If you lose the person you are drafting off, try to find someone else to draft off as this will save you a lot of energy. 

Exiting the water

  • When you are coming near to the end of the swim start kicking your legs a bit quicker to get some blood into the legs and swim to as shallow a point as possible.  Ideally you want to stand up when the water is only ankle deep so that you can run out of the water with least effort.  Many races have people that will also help pull you out of the water so use them to get extra momentum to get out of the water.
  • As you run out start taking off your wetsuit.  Your heart rate will be the highest at any point during a race so try to focus on your breathing and calm it down and focus on the transition.

Goggle selection

  • I always have three types of goggles with me.  Dark goggles for bright conditions, mirrored goggles for sunny conditions and clear goggles for overcast conditions.

Wave environment

  • If you have a race which is in wavy conditions, try to sight and breathe as you crest the waves.  Learn to breathe bi-laterally so you can breathe away from the waves.  If it is a beach start and you are running into the water dive under the waves as this is far easier than trying to run through them or swim over them.  If you are also doing a beach start where there is a long shallow entry before it deepens above the knees it is quicker to Dolphin. 

Non wetsuit swims

  • If you are a good swimmer then a swim without a wetsuit won’t make too much difference to your swim time.  However, if like 70% of triathletes you are not a seasoned swimmer then this often fears people with fear.  A wetsuit can help a weaker swimmer by taking minutes off your swim time.  If you are not able to wear a wetsuit due to the water temperature being too warm, then you have to adjust your pace and effort during the swim.  A wetsuit will help keep your legs higher in the water.  If you are not allowed to wear a wetsuit your legs will be lower in the water so by doing more kick drills when you are swim training will help you become a better swimmer in open water.

If you have any questions please reach out to Ralph.

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