Master Open-Water Swimming for Triathlon


, by Emma-Kate Lidbury

Photography by: DZiegler

Swimming in open water can be daunting, even for seasoned swimmers. Learn how to build confidence for open-water swimming with this comprehensive guide. 

Open-water swimming can strike fear in even the most experienced of swimmers. Ask a triathlete which part of the race they dread the most and the majority won’t hesitate to tell you it’s the swim. And the fact that most triathlon swim starts are similar to climbing into a washing machine on high spin with the physical contact of an intense bar brawl and, well, it’s understandable why most athletes look a little nerve-wracked when they’re standing on the start line.

In this article, we’ll give you all the tips and tricks you need to know to build skills and reduce anxiety before your next race. 

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Same Same, But Different

When it comes to swimming in a pool compared to swimming in open water, the differences are obvious and significant. With pool swimming you are dealing with few variables—the water temperature, the conditions, the number of people in the pool—they are all fixed, known entities. Open-water swimming, by contrast, is dynamic and demanding. Water temperature, currents, and tides, surf, marine life, dark water, and proximity to other swimmers—these are all factors you have no control over. To add to the anxiety, you have no way of knowing which conditions you might face come race day. The solution? Prepare for all of them so you can arrive at the start line feeling confident and ready. Read on to find out how—and spoiler alert: it’s not as hard as it sounds.

Most triathlon swim starts are similar to climbing into a washing machine on high spin with the physical contact of an intense bar brawl

Preparation Is Everything

Many triathletes do the majority (or all) of their swim training in pools and then wonder why on race day, when faced with an open-water swim, they have a sub-par performance. If the majority of your swimming is done in a pool with lane lines, constant temperatures, limited contact with other swimmers, and little to no practice of some of the key skills needed to succeed when swimming in oceans, lakes, or rivers, then unfortunately you are not setting yourself up for success. 

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If you live a long way from open water then, understandably, geography can make it difficult to regularly practice open-water swimming, but don’t let that deter you as some of the necessary skills and drills can be mastered and honed in the pool. Perhaps the most important first step is being ready and willing to learn these key skills and then be prepared to practice them diligently. These skills include:

  • Sighting

  • Drafting

  • Pack swimming 

  • Pace lining

  • Turning

  • Entries and exits

  • Familiarity with different water and air temperatures

  • Familiarity with currents and tides

  • Managing fear around marine life

Photography by: kirill_makarov

The good news is that at least half of the list above can be practiced in the pool, so if you don’t live near or have regular access to open water then there’s still plenty you can do. 

Replace Fear with Familiarity

Triathlon swim coach Gerry Rodrigues has helped thousands of athletes of all ages and abilities to master open-water swimming and he acknowledges that a significant part of every swimmer’s journey is overcoming fear and anxiety. To help do this, he is a huge advocate of building familiarity to help reduce fear. 

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“Familiarity breeds comfort, and with adequate preparation, comfort brings confidence,” he says. He recommends athletes practice skills consistently, citing 10 times over three weeks as the frequency he has seen produce the best results. 

Key Open-Water Swimming Skills

Let’s run through the most important open-water swimming skills and give you an overview of how to execute them. We’ll then share an example workout later in the article that demonstrates how to build these skills into swim training sessions. 

Photography by: Pavel Burchenko

1. Sighting (How to do it)

Perhaps the most important open-water swimming skill for triathletes to learn, sighting is the practice of looking up/lifting your head to check you’re swimming on course. If you’ve signed up for a half Ironman race then you’ll be faced with a 1.2-mile swim. If your sighting abilities are poor then there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll swim much further than the 1.2 miles you signed up for. 

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You’ll want to get into the habit of sighting frequently, typically every six to 10 strokes, sometimes more often than that if you’re swimming in choppy water. While there are a number of different sighting techniques, the most popular and efficient technique for triathletes is the sight and breathe method. With adequate practice it can be incorporated into your stroke smoothly and efficiently. Here’s how it works: 

  • If you are a right-sided breather, you begin lifting your head as your left hand is exiting the water (your left arm has finished the underwater pull stroke)

  • As your left-hand finishes the stroke and your left arm is coming out of the water, there is a slight lift of the left side of your body—and that’s when you begin lifting your head to sight

  • As your left arm begins its recovery, coming out of the water and then prepares to re-enter it, your head lifts, and as it does your eyes and nose (sometimes the mouth too) clear the water line

  • Your head should lift just enough to capture enough information—are you on course?—before your left hand re-enters the water and your head turns to the right to breathe. (Note: If you sight and don’t see anything—this can often happen in choppy water—then that’s not a sighting and you’ll need to repeat the process). 

  • While this might all sound clunky, it should be anything but once well-learned. It should become a smooth, fluid movement that takes place very quickly—lift, sight, breathe, lift, sight, breathe. 

  • Repeat the above pattern every six to 10 strokes to ensure you’re staying on course. Many people will sight for fixed objects on dry land, such as tall buildings, so they have a fixed point of reference. As tempting as it might sometimes be in a race, never blindly follow the feet in front of you as you have no idea if the athlete is swimming on course. 

Fun fact: When racing an Ironman swim (2.4 miles), you’ll likely sight around 400 times, so it’s certainly an important skill to practice in training. 

Photography by: juananbarros

2. Drafting

While sighting might be considered a necessary evil, drafting is where the fun comes in. Want to catch a free ride around the swim course with maximum speed and minimum effort? Then learn to draft well! 

Although it might not be quite that easy, drafting can definitely yield huge benefits when done correctly. Drafting is the practice of swimming directly on someone’s feet or alongside their hips, thereby saving energy and getting pulled along with them. 

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It is estimated that drafting off the feet of the swimmer in front will yield about a 3% saving in energy, while drafting off the hip can bring a 7% energy saving. Both positions come with risk, though. When swimming on someone’s feet you’ll want to make sure you don’t hit their feet too often. If you do, you’ll likely find that swimmer gets annoyed with you pretty swiftly and does everything they can to remove you. 

It is estimated that drafting off the feet of the swimmer in front will yield about a 3% saving in energy, while drafting off the hip can bring a 7% energy saving.

The same can be said for the hips—it takes a lot of practice to successfully swim on someone’s hip without impeding their stroke. The key to doing this well is incorporating it into your training, practicing it with a group of swimmers and rotating your positions (see example workout below). This will give you a clear idea of how much energy it can save and how hard it can be to get right. 

3. Pack swimming

Watch any elite triathlon race and you’ll see packs of athletes swimming together, many of them vying for the optimal position in the pack while others are simply trying to hang on. As mentioned in the drafting section above, there are definite benefits to swimming in certain positions within a pack, but those benefits will be muted if you’re not accustomed to swimming in close proximity to others. 

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Due to the differences in skill, most age-group races will feature less orderly pack swimming and so it certainly pays to be aware of this—and to be ready for it. The swim start of a triathlon can be an adrenaline-fueled rush of chaos akin to being thrown into a washing machine on high spin. You’ll soon find elbows in your ribs, feet in your face, or someone rolling over your back and inadvertently dunking you. It’s like an extraordinary bar brawl, only there’s no beer involved and you’re all wearing neoprene and vying for PRs in 65-degree water. 

Photography by: Susan

The only way to prepare for this is to get used to swimming in close proximity to other athletes. Looking for a fun and fruitful practice? At the end of swim practice, remove the lane ropes and get 10-12 swimmers positioned closely together in rows of three to four. Practice swimming some fast 25s, with the front row of swimmers pushing off the wall and then the subsequent rows pushing off soon after. After a few 25s like this, switch positions so that everyone gets a chance to experience being in the front of the pack, the side, the middle, the back, etc. 

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Doing this with people you know can also help illustrate that the contact that comes from pack swimming is rarely intentional. It’s easy to slip into the mindset, especially on race day, that your competitors are deliberately hitting you. They likely aren’t—they’re all just as keen as you are to get from A to B as fast as possible. A key part of successful pack swimming is maintaining this mindset.       

4. Pace lining

Similar to drafting and pack swimming, pace lining is a fun and important skill to build into pool workouts that will transfer superbly to your open-water skill set. It will definitely help you understand the potential free speed that comes with good drafting. So what is it? 

Pace lining is where swimmers position themselves in a single line, one behind the other, pushing off in close proximity to each other and deliberately swimming on the feet (or as close as possible) to the athlete in front. It’s best done with a group of four or five swimmers, each taking a turn in the lead and rotating through the other positions, two to four/five. 

Building a strong bank of open-water experience and maintaining a calm mindset in the water will make it significantly easier to swim to your potential on race day. 

For a group of four swimmers, a good example set would be swimming a 400, rotating the lead swimmer every 100 so that everyone can experience the difference between swimming at the front and swimming “on feet.” Swimming 1:30 per 100 pace while on the front (with three swimmers drafting behind you) could feel like a 90% effort, while swimming in positions two through four (for the exact same pace) would likely feel like a 70% effort. Pace lining is also a really effective way to build different intensities into your training, as highlighted in this article, The Real Reason You’re Not Getting Faster at Swimming

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5. Turning

While it might not make or break your race, learning to turn efficiently around turn buoys is a worthwhile practice and can be built into open-water swim sessions or pool sessions. Most open-water triathlons will feature at least one or two (if not more) turns where you’ll usually be faced with a high density of athletes all trying to take the shortest route around the buoy at the same time. 

As with the swim start, it’s best to keep as calm a mindset as possible, focus on your safest, smartest route through the turn, and not throw any punches, even if you get landed with one (or more!). 

Photography by: Neil Cox

While you can simply swim around the buoy, there is also a technique which involves taking one or two backstroke pulls to get you through it faster. For example, if you’re approaching a left-hand turn buoy, you would swim up to the buoy and then when almost into the corner, drop your left arm, roll over onto your back, do a right arm backstroke, flip back onto your front, kick hard to propel you out of the turn, and return to your regular stroke. Of course, when surrounded by many athletes this might not be a smooth turn, so practice it plenty, ideally with a group of swimmers in close proximity, either in the pool or in open water.

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6. Entries and exits

Not all triathlons begin with a beach or on-land start, but if they do, it’s certainly wise to practice these prior to race day. Get acquainted with how deep or shallow the water is so you know roughly how many steps to take before diving (or dolphin diving). 

When it comes to exits, it’s always smart to use the last 200m or so of your swim to kick more frequently (to help bring some blood back into your legs before you go from being horizontal to vertical). It can be quite a shock to the system to spend 30+ minutes (half Ironman) or 60+ minutes (Ironman) in a horizontal position and then suddenly be upright and running. 

For this reason, it’s also worth practicing transitions in training (whether at an open-water swim or pool practice). Also be sure you have some fixed landmarks to sight in the final few hundred meters of your swim so you can get to the swim exit as efficiently as possible. 

Photography by: Martin Charles Hatch

Let Familiarity Triumph Over Fear 

The remaining skills listed, namely, familiarity with different water and air temperatures, familiarity with currents and tides, and managing fear around marine life, obviously can’t be practiced in the pool, but they can all be improved with regular open-water swimming practice. The confidence that comes from knowing you’ve faced a certain situation in training will pay dividends on race day. Anyone, even the most experienced of swimmers, can still experience fear or anxiety around marine life or strong tides, but building a strong bank of open-water experience and maintaining a calm mindset in the water will make it significantly easier to swim to your potential on race day. 

Safety and Gear for Open Water Swimming

Open-water swimming comes with its fair share of risks, so being mindful of safety is always important. Here are a few key rules to remember:

  • Always swim with a buddy or a group; never swim alone

  • Wear a bright-colored swim cap and/or attach a hi-viz flotation device to your ankle so that you can be easily seen

  • Be aware of the conditions, such as currents and tides, and if in doubt, don’t go in

  • Know your course and be familiar with where you’re getting in and out of the water

  • Don’t swim in extreme temperatures and wear a wetsuit in colder water. Note: When water is 76.1 F (24.5C) or below, wetsuits are worn in Ironman events. It is not advisable to swim in water below 60 F (15.5 C). Wetsuits are prohibited when water is 83.8F (28.8C). 

Example Open Water Swim Workout in the Pool

There are many ways to train for open-water swimming in the pool. Here’s an example workout that will help build swim-specific fitness while also honing key skills:


  • 5 mins. easy swimming to include sighting

  • 5 mins. as 30 strokes easy, 5 strokes faster, 30 strokes easy, 10 strokes faster, 30 strokes easy, 15 strokes faster. Repeat until you get to 30 strokes easy, 30 strokes faster. Note: this is a great race-day warm-up and is well worth practicing in training. 

Main set:

  • 3 x 50 fast @ 90% effort - sighting every 6-10 strokes; this can be done in pairs or groups of three to practice drafting and pack swimming

  • 300 @ 85% effort - sighting every 6-10 strokes

[Note: this can be done as a pace lining swim if desired, rotating the leader every 100]

  • 50 @ 90-95% effort - sighting every 6-10 strokes; this can be done in pairs or groups of three to practice drafting and pack swimming

  • 50 easy and, if possible, deck-up (climb out of the pool) to practice moving from horizontal to vertical 

Repeat the main set 2-3 times depending on fitness and time available


  • 200 easy pull