It’s quite obvious that if you are going to enter a triathlon event, you need to know how to swim first. A lot of today’s newcomers to the sport of triathlon, come from a biking or running background and the swim discipline is something they have to pretty much learn to do from scratch. There is however a huge difference to being swim pool safe and competent and then being skilled and strong enough to swim in open water. What some triathlon events are finding and experiencing these days is that triathletes are entering races with a perceived notion of being able to swim, only to find that a lot of them actually lack the necessary basic open water skills to tackle the swim discipline when conditions are less than near perfect.




Originally brought into the sport to keep people warmer when they had to swim in cold conditions, the wetsuit has now unfortunately become a crucial non-negotiable item for some triathletes to actually be confident and water-safe enough to venture into the open water. We can see this panic set in amongst these triathletes if there is a sudden change to the wetsuit rule when the water is deemed to be too hot to wear one and a non-wetsuit swim is declared at some arb event around the globe. Far too often the referee’s will bend the rules to ensure wetsuits are worn as they are all aware of the fact that a lot of the entrants simply cannot swim confidently in the open water without their wetsuits.

We can potentially blame some of the coaches as well for this. One of the first purchases in equipment when one takes up the sport is that of a wetsuit. Almost every single practice swim in the open water is then under-taken in a wetsuit, no matter what the water temperature is. This then ensures that the athlete has to rely on that wetsuit for their open water swimming as they have never or rarely practiced open water swimming without it. No wonder they panic when the odd race pops along and they are told that they cannot wear a wetsuit. A coach should be teaching their athletes to be swim compliant in the open water without a suit on to start with. This will then ensure they become better and stronger open water swimmers. This will also help improve the safety for each athlete out in the open water at their next event. If you can swim confidently without one, how much better off will you be when you have the wetsuit on?


How do I become a better open water swimmer?


  • Mass Start Open Water Swim Events


  • Enter as many open water swimming events as you can where there are mass starts and you are not allowed to wear a wetsuit. They generally offer a variety of distances on race days so start with the shorter distance ones and work your way up to the longer ones. If you are swim fit in a swimming pool, you can enter one of these events. The more of these you do, the better skilled and more confident you will become. How much more so when you are allowed to wear a wetsuit
  • Too many of today’s triathlon events start with what they call a “rolling start”. Athletes going off at short intervals. Whilst we get the “safety” aspect of this approach, especially at the mass participation events, it does take away the excitement of that BANG when the gun goes off and there is a frenzy as the swimmers take to the water. If you have done a few of these open water swim events only, mass starts will be something you are completely used to and rarely battle with. Being able to swim amongst hundreds of other swimmers inside the so-called “washing machine” will also not scare you in the future


  • Practice, Practice, Practice


  • The only way to improve your open water skills are to practice.
  • The only way to improve your confidence and skills levels are to get into the open water and develop those skills needed to be completely water-safe and compliant. Remember a dam swim is often not the same as a sea swim. If your race is taking place in the ocean, then best you head down to the coast in advance of the race and practice in the ocean.
  • Currents and Waves make it completely different to that of a dam or lake.
  • Don’t always wait for optimum conditions to swim and train in, go in when the sea is a little rough and choppy (not alone of course and make sure you are within the lifeguards calling at all times). This will then prepare you for race days when the swim conditions are not ideal


  • Develop your upper body strength


  • A stronger swimmer will cope far better in rougher open water swim conditions than a weaker swimmer. What do we mean by this? Simply put, a person who has limited or less than perfect swim technical skills but is strong and fit, will be better off than a person who is technically sound at swimming in a pool but has lesser upper body strength to cope with the possible strong currents and “wash-waves” that can be experienced at some open water swim events. You don’t need to spend hours in the gym, after all time is at a premium. 2 x per week, 20-30 minutes at a time spent on arms, shoulders and lats will suffice.


  • Swim more if you going open water surf swimming


  • If you are going to enter a few events that take place in the ocean, make sure you are swim FITTER. As we mentioned earlier in the piece, a dam swim is completely different to an ocean swim. You need to be fitter to swim in the sea than you do for a dam or lake. That 1st 100-150m navigating the waves and currents will sap some of the energy stores early into the swim, this will leave you slightly fatigued right from the start and this is where problems potentially creep in. if you are fitter, you will cope far better in the ocean. Up the swim distances in advance of your open water swim event and be MORE swim fit.
  • Warm-up before the plunge


  • Some events make it harder to get into the water before the start of the event but this is crucial that you do some kind of pre-warmup swim before the start of the race. Not only will this settle your nerves and prepare you for what is to come, but it will also ensure that your muscles and elevated heart rate are ready for the rigours of what normally comes when the gun goes off and swimmers rush into the ocean to start their swim. Pre-Warm-Up swim is a must for a stress free better swim.


  • Buy some decent goggles


  • Whilst this small item appears to have nothing to do with being a better swimmer, a pair of goggles that do not leak and do not fog up will ensure you swim better on race day. Clear lensed goggles are best, a swimmer with a clear vision of where they need to go will swim more confidently than one who cannot see anything because the goggles are filled with water and have misted up.


So, you have some work to do. Want to enter a triathlon? GREAT! Just make sure you are prepped properly for that open water swim that may offer up a possible non wetsuit swim and less than ideal swim conditions. Adopt some of the above and trust us, you will be better off than the athlete standing next to you.