As with all things, you get better at open water swimming by practicing open water swimming. There really is a difference between clear pool water with a big stripe on the bottom as a guide and swimming in conditions that are less clear with no guidance. It’s nearly impossible to recreate that feeling in a pool so I’m here to tell you that you need to find a safe, preferably guarded, body of water to swim in.
While there are also differences between swimming in a lake, a river, the ocean or a bay, you can get started by using what’s available. Here in Philadelphia, there are open water swim options in the Schuylkill, in local lakes, and at the Jersey Shore to name a few. The things all of these locations have in common is that the water will seem darker than the pool and you will need to learn to swim in a straight line and check where you are while swimming. Essentially, the hurdles are partly mental hurdles and partly physical hurdles. Once you can overcome both of these, you can transfer those skills to any open water setting.
The mental hurdles
It makes me laugh when people tell me they are afraid because they can’t see the bottom when they are in open water because I’m the complete opposite – I don’t want to see what’s down there! We all have something that gives us pause and the thing to remember about seeing the bottom or being in deep water is that you swim ON TOP of the water. What’s below you and whether or not you can see it is irrelevant. Going back to talking about good body position, you’ll remember that I said you want to be relatively flat and close to the surface when swimming freestyle. This applies to the pool AND open water. Most of the time, you can see your hand as it goes through the water and you can see others swimming nearby and that’s plenty of information to use to focus on good form and know where your competitors are.
Even though I grew up swimming in open water, I know what it feels like to have your heart beat a little faster or have an uneasy feeling when you start swimming in open water. I’ll let you in on a little secret of mine – I get terribly creeped out by swimming past stationary objects (like boats, the columns that hold up a bridge and even the buoys we have to swim around)! So when I feel that little panic feeling, I am almost 100% sure that my swim technique has already been compromised. It’s precisely at these moments that I literally say in my head “Marcy, just swim”. And it’s like a little flip is switched and I think – oh, right. Just swim.
I know how to swim.
I have been practicing how to swim.
None of these other things actually matter.
I can just swim.
Perhaps that same little set of words won’t do the trick to calm you down, but give it a try and then focus on something: your rotation, breathing pattern, your pull and just swim. You’ll improve your form, pick up speed and perhaps forget all the rest!
The Physical hurdles
Now that your brain is back in the game, you need to be sure that you are 1) using good technique and 2) swimming in a straight line. The second is usually a little harder until you practice. While there’s no trick for swimming straight, you can use a technique called sighting to ensure you are headed in the right direction. While using breaststroke to sight is one way to lift your head and see where you are going, I like to incorporate sighting into freestyle so you can have as little interruption to your stroke as possible. When teaching this, I usually give several options to try.
1) You can lift your head up and look forward while you are swimming. It might be a little Tarzan like but you can literally take 1-2 strokes with your face looking forward instead of down and it is enough time to see a landmark, like a buoy, and keep swimming or correct your course.
2) You can incorporate a look forward in your breathing. I know I usually tell people DO NOT look forward when you take a breath because it changes your body position for the worse. Well, now I am telling you to look forward when you breath. This can be done two different ways: turn your head to breath and then follow your arm overhead and look forward or lift your head forward, then turn to the side to complete your breath and keep swimming. This method really allows you to get a quick sighting of where you are without interrupting your freestyle stroke almost at all.
3) You can sight behind you. I also coach that breathing ‘backwards’ is great for body position and for not getting too much water in your mouth and it also works to be able to take a quick look backwards at perhaps the last buoy you passed.
Using any of these methods, once you have got your bearings, go back to ‘just swimming’. You do not want to fall into the trap of sighting every few strokes. You’ll exhaust yourself, chafe your neck if you are wearing a wetsuit and extend your swim longer than you want! Sight, make an adjustments necessary and then just swim.
And above all, practice, practice, practice. Practice sighting in the pool. Practice swimming in open water. Practice calming yourself down and remembering to just swim. Find a friend. Find a coach. Don’t let swimming, in a pool or in open water hold you back!