How to Be A Swim Animal: Open Water Swim Preparation for Triathletes

Swimming animal

By Guila Muir, Swim Excursion Leader, Say Yes! to Life Swims LLC

ANIMAL (Definition): The highest compliment you can give an open-water swimmer.

Do you dread the swim portion of your upcoming triathlon? Are you training in a pool, even though you know (intellectually!) that triathlon swimming is totally different?

The only effective way to train for an open water swim is to train in the open water.  A pool cannot simulate open water conditions, such as chop, waves, wind, and current. When you wear a wetsuit, your body position and stroke change.  Your swim times outside may be much slower than those in a pool.

Three Tips to Prepare

1. Get outside early in the season. To beat your competitors, start swimming outdoors early in the season. You should be able to complete 80% of your race distance in the open water two to three weeks preceding your event.

Because you are immersing early in the year, you absolutely must acclimate. Cold water robs the body of heat 32 times faster than cold air. Enter the water slowly and stay in a maximum of ten minutes at first. Run in and out of the water several times before starting to swim. Extend your distance and duration each time.

Expect to feel an “ice-cream” sinus headache during your first few minutes in the water. Your face may hurt. Relax and be patient…like many things in triathlon, pain is part of the process!

Remove your swimsuit and wetsuit quickly once you exit the water. Always change into closed shoes and warm clothes, and bring a thermos of warm liquid (NOT brandy). Because of vasoconstriction, you will probably feel colder 15-30 minutes after your swim than you did while swimming.

If you are combining your swim with a run, always swim first. Triathletes who do the opposite risk feeling uncomfortably cold in the water.

2. Use appropriate gear.  The following gear will help you get a leg up on your competitors.

  • Professionally fitted wetsuit. Eschew on-line purchasing; a careful fitting is important. Warning: Although your wetsuit provides buoyancy, it is not a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Wearing one will not save your life.
  • Neoprene cap. This protects you in the early season. Pull a bright latex or silicone cap over it to increase your visibility.
  • Silicon earplugs. Although earplugs can mute important sounds (like boat motors), they help to protect your main “computer”—your brain.
  • Use a Swimmer Safety Device. Swimmers can usually see boaters, but boaters often cannot see swimmers. Buckling around your waist and trailing behind you, Swimmer Safety Devices make you more visible in the water. Like wetsuits, they are not meant to be used as PFDs. (

3. Swim with experienced paddlers. It’s best to train with a group, but even better to swim with an experienced kayaker. Your kayaker must carry an extra PFD for you. They should know CPR and carry a phone in case of emergency.

Be An Animal. Challenge yourself! Keep track of your times, and try to beat them. Also consider joining the growing ranks of open water swimmers who swim year-round. These swimmers will welcome you with open arms. You may start to enjoy open water swimming instead of dreading it.

Happy training!

Guila Muir is the Swim Excursion Leader for Say Yes! to Life Swims LLC, the Northwest’s premiere source of escorted open water swims. Join us to practice sighting and swimming in a pack while you test your endurance!