OPEN WATER SWIM TRAINING
WHILE MANY PEOPLE complain about the “black line fever” associated with pool swimming, the “no bottom fever” from open water is worse. For others, the thought of that initial cold slap to the face that sucks the breath out of your lungs and sends a jolt to your heart keeps them away from the shores until the summer sun has had enough time to bring up the water temperatures. For most Canadians, that often comes after the first few races of the season are already in the books. Another factor that often keeps people from open water swims is crowds. After months spent in a civilized pool leaving 10 seconds between swimmers, having people all around can be uncomfortable. The earlier you can get in the open water and begin preparing, the better off you’ll be.
The first “official” open water swim session here in Victoria took place on May 4. The water was a chilly 15.3 C. We had 23 brave souls show up. A week later, the water was 16.7 C and the number of swimmers rose to 35. By June we had 75 and the temperatures were north of 18 C.
Cold water hacks
When it comes to dealing with the cold water, there are a number of things you can do. A thermos of warm water poured down the wetsuit just prior to getting in can help the initial transition, or you can just drink lots of warm tea before and create your own warm water (pee in your wetsuit) upon entering the water. There are also neoprene booties, gloves and caps available. You can also double up silicone caps and apply Vaseline on the cheeks, hands or feet. While it’s messy, it helps. One of my favourite tips to share is to use ear plugs. A simple pair of ear plugs can make cold water considerably more comfortable. The colder the water, the more likely one is to experience vertigo. Ear plugs can erase that effect completely. The foam ones used for noise reduction work great, but silicone is best.
Another strategy is to have a “training” wetsuit and a “racing” suit. Racing suits use thinner neoprene wherever it’s needed for flexibility and heavier where it’s not. Generally, a single-thickness suit is cheaper, more durable and warmer, but it’s slower. I like this solution as it falls into the “train heavy, race light” philosophy I believe in.
Swimming alone in open water is never a great idea, but for some, it’s positively terrifying. If you’re someone who has anxiety over the “vastness” of open water, find others to join you. If that’s not an option, then maybe a friend can paddle beside you in a kayak. For most swimmers, tackling this fear head-on will result in its reduction after only a few sessions.
Then there are those who are challenged by the idea of getting in with too many others. The thrashing is scary. In a way, the solution is the same as being anxious about getting in alone. Get in with others and get used to having them close to you. It doesn’t take long to realize that the contact that comes in the heat of competition and training is never as bad as your imagination.
Open water training
And what do you do, once you’re in? Many athletes simply get in and swim long, straight swims, where the level of effort is profoundly lower than race effort or the cumulative effect of a pool session. For that reason, have a planned workout ready. It’s ideal to have others with you. An effective lake effort might look like this:
Open water swimming is an essential part of a triathlete’s training regimen. Some have it easier than others as far as accessibility and conditions, but with a few tricks and some determination almost every Canadian should be able to take advantage of our beautiful lakes and oceans.
Clint Lien is the head coach of Mercury Rising Triathlon in Victoria: mercuryrisingtriathlon.com