Becoming a Confident Open Water Swimmer

Lack of confidence in swimming in open water is one of the top reasons seniors give for not doing a triathlon. This post contains advice from other seniors who have overcome their fear of open water swimming to finish many triathlons and open water swim races.

Background

In early 2021, I conducted a survey about triathlon’s greatest challenges for seniors, both beginners and experienced triathletes. Nearly one of four respondents identified concern about the swim as a challenge.

My recent conversation with Pat and Joan Hogan about their triathlon journeys reminded me of this statistic. Fortunately, many seniors, including Joan Hogan, have “slain that dragon” to go on and compete in triathlons.

How have they done this?

Approach

I asked three experienced senior triathletes who previously struggled with the open water swim how they had become more confident in open water. The three who generously and openly shared their experiences and advice, making this post as insightful as it is, are (in alphabetical order of last name):

Here is what I heard them say.

Some Discomfort With Open Water Swimming Is Normal

“You are not alone” was a common phrase I heard during my conversations with Nikki, Donna, and Paul.

The first step is to realize that some anxiety about open water swimming is normal. Truthfully, fear is beneficial when it causes us to avoid self-destructive actions and unnecessarily dangerous situations.

Donna recalled watching from a boat the swim leg of a half Ironman triathlon whose swim was in Savannah River. She was amazed to see the number of triathletes who were on their back, hanging onto a kayak (which is allowed by USAT rules), or showed other signs of struggling.

Swimming is the most technical of the three disciplines of a triathlon. While it requires fitness and endurance, the technique, which includes how your hands and arms enter the water and your posture throughout the stroke, is key to a comfortable swim.

Ways to Develop More Confidence as an Open Water Swimmer

Nikki, Donna, and Paul prove you can become a confident open water swimmer.

What is the secret? Following is the picture they painted as they related their experiences.

First, Become Confident in the Pool

The three contributors to this post each mentioned the need to become confident swimming in a pool before heading into the open water.

What this will require depends on your experience with swimming. Some, who never learned to swim as a child, will need to start from the beginning, often with lessons. (If you are starting from the beginning, the first goal is to learn proper breathing.)

Others will develop confidence by swimming with a Masters swim or triathlon club. For others, hiring a swim coach to help them develop a more efficient swim stroke or kick will be the answer.

Paul said that when he was learning to swim, putting on flippers helped him to get enough forward momentum that he could focus on coordinating his arm movement and breathing. Once breathing during the swim stroke felt natural and relaxed, he put the flippers aside and focused on kicking.

Practice Sighting in the Pool

Once you enter the open water, you will no longer have the lines at the bottom of the pool to follow. So, while you are still in the pool, begin to practice ‘sighting‘.

Sighting is an essential part of the open water swim stroke during which you lift your head out of the water to check your location and surroundings. During a triathlon, proper sighting will keep you on the shortest course to the next turn buoy or to the swim exit.

Stay Focused

Even as you develop confidence in the pool, remember to stay focused on what you are trying to accomplish in each session. Avoid daydreaming.

Whether you are learning to swim or training to improve your stroke, focus is key to becoming a more efficient swimmer.

swimming with experienced swimmers is a path to becoming a more confident open water swimmer.
Joining a swim class or group that swims together regularly will help you improve both confidence and skill as a triathlon swimmer.

Practice with race day nutrition

We often think of muscle cramps as an issue for runners. However, cramps have ended a race for many a triathlete during the swim.

While swimming in the pool, learn of any issues you have with cramps. Some people experience these in their calf or foot muscles. Others can experience them in their lower back. I remember a cramp in one of my hamstring muscles cutting a swim session short.

For most people, preventing cramps is a matter of paying attention to nutrition and hydration before a swim.

Being adequately hydrated before the swim is a must to prevent cramps. Others benefit from eating a banana (potassium) or taking an anti-cramp supplement (e.g. GU gel with electrolytes, Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes) thirty minutes before swimming.

Next, Practice in Open Water

Your next goal is to swim in the open water.

A first principle of triathlon is “never do anything for the first time on race day”. This is especially true for open water swimming.

Start with a short distance. However, aim at eventually swimming a distance at least two times that required in your next triathlon.

If possible, complete this swim in different weather and water conditions. For example, don’t swim only if the water is calm. Practice swimming with wind and more choppy weather. You should even practice sighting with the sun in your eyes, a common situation during early morning races.

If the race will be in the ocean, practice getting past the breaking waves near shore by swimming through them.

Get the Right Gear

Arming yourself with a few items can eliminate some common sources of anxiety. Others can make you more visible while you are sharing the open water with boats and personal watercraft.

Besides a pair of good fitting goggles, including one pair with tinted lenses for those times when you are swimming into the sun, two must-have items for open water swim practice are:

While more expensive than these two items, a triathlon wetsuit is another wise investment. A wetsuit is great when the water or air temperature is cold. In addition, it adds buoyancy to keep your legs at the top of the water, making this one less thing with which to concern yourself.

Join Others to be More Confident as an Open Water Swimmer

When you first swim in open water, do so with other people. If possible, find a triathlon or swim club. If this doesn’t work because of where you live, find a place where experienced swimmers go, such as a public beach, and go with a friend.

Swim only in areas where swimming is specifically allowed. Swimming in “any old place” can mean swimming with unfriendly critters such as alligators, snakes, and jelly fish.

An ideal place to swim is at a public beach with lifeguards. According to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), the chance of a person drowning while at a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards is 1 in 18 million.

Swim back and forth between lifeguard towers or, if there is only one, within the distance the single lifeguard covers. You can even inform the lifeguard of your situation.

Then, if possible, swim in water no deeper than that in which you can stand. This will eliminate another possible source of anxiety.

Ways to Maintain and Even Build Confidence in Open Water Swimming

Even after you have become confident in the open water, it is essential that you follow safe practices.

Nikki told me that before she heads out for a swim in the ocean or nearby Chesapeake Bay, she checks the surf forecast for the beach at which she plans to swim. In particular, she looks at the forecast for rip currents and wave height.

“I might still swim if there are waves a couple of feet, maybe more, but that changes the dynamics of the swim. I might not swim a mile but will be happy to work on my sighting, breathing, and other skills. I have actually found it to be quite fun and inspiring to see my skill level increase when swimming in more challenging water conditions.”

To learn more about rip currents, how to identify them, and how to swim in water where they are present; watch this short but information-packed video presentation by a representative of the National Weather Service.

Nikki’s comments on the benefit of swimming in different weather conditions and bodies of water (lakes, rivers, ocean) were echoed by Donna and Paul.

Other advice from the three for growing your confidence in the open water is:

  • Swim in open water every opportunity you have.
  • Continue to improve your swim fitness and technique. Learn to swim more efficiently. This does not have to mean swimming faster, but with less effort, using less energy because you are more efficient. Feeling out of breath, on the other hand, can bring on panic.
  • Finally, train yourself to mute any negative voices in your head. Some swimmers count from 1 to 100 over and over. Others sing. Do what works for you to stay calm.

“Do the thing you fear to do and keep on doing it… that is the quickest and surest way ever yet discovered to conquer fear.”

Dale Carnegie

Race Day Tips

Race day can present its own challenges. There is the almost inevitable contact with other swimmers. A race can also unleash an adrenaline-driven desire to keep up with or pass other racers.

Ways to mitigate these are:

  • If possible, swim in the open water of the race in the minutes leading up to the start of the race. This falls into the category of minimizing surprises that can come from:
    • Knowing the condition of the water in which you will walk into and swim. Are there sharp or slippery rocks on the way into the water? Are there weeds that I will touch when swimming? How quickly does the bottom drop-off?
    • Kick-starting your heart rate. If your heart rate spikes when starting fast, a pre-race swim will help prevent this.
    • Getting wet. The pre-race swim gets any shock of first entering the water out of the way before the race starts.
  • If there is a wave start, position yourself to one side of other swimmers or at the back of the pack.
  • Find and get into a rhythm as quickly as possible and stick to it. Stay calm. Nothing goes well when you tense up. This is just as true for swimming as it is for other sports.
  • Try to swim near others you can follow. As long as they stay on course, you can follow them, which reduces the amount of sighting you must do.
open water swim start at the California triathlon
Since I had arrived at the higher elevation (7,000 feet or 2,100 meters) of this race only two days earlier, I started near the back of the wave. Picture courtesy of Lefrak Photography.

Resources for Becoming a More Confident Open Water Swimmer

Nikki, Donna, and Paul told me of the resources they have found helpful in becoming and staying confident while swimming in the open water.

Thank You

Thank you to Nikki, Donna, and Paul for sharing your time and insights that are the basis for this post.

If you found this article useful, please add a Comment to thank them.

Is There More You Need to Know to Become a Confident Open Water Swimmer?

What questions do you have? Are there other tips you have learned for becoming a more confident, open water swimmer?

Or, have you found other resources for developing confidence in the swim leg?

Comments: Please note that I review all comments before they are posted. You will be notified by email when your comment is approved. Even if you do not submit a comment, you may subscribe to be notified when a comment is published.

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Planning For A Triathlon At Higher Altitude

How can you prepare for racing in a triathlon or other multisport endurance event that is at a significantly higher altitude than where you live and train?

While crossing the USA to complete a triathlon in every state, I have raced in western states, where the altitude on the courses was between 4,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. Having trained in areas well below this, between sea level and 1,000 feet, I felt the effect of the altitude on race day.

Related post: Triathlon Across the USA: State #22 – New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico sits at around 7,000 feet elevation. This picture was taken in the city’s art district.

What Happens When We Travel to Higher Altitude

As pictured in the chart below, the most important change is that the amount of oxygen in the air effectively decreases with altitude.

The people at APEX (Altitude Physiology Expeditions) describe it like this:

“At real altitude (in the mountains), the barometric pressure of the atmosphere is much lower than sea-level environments. The result is that oxygen molecules are spread further apart, lowering the oxygen content of each breath.”

While each air molecule contains the same amount of oxygen no matter the elevation, the density of air molecules decreases with altitude. This effectively reduces the oxygen content.

In other words, we draw in fewer air molecules with each breath at high altitude compared to a lower one. Each breath provides less oxygen for our muscles to burn fuel and create the power to move us through the water or along the road.

The result is that for a particular rate of perceived exertion (RPE), we will have less oxygen with which to power our muscles. We aren’t able to swim, bike, or run as fast as we are with more oxygen.

information about effective oxygen content with altitude for a triathlon at higher altitude
Effective Oxygen Content vs. Altitude (Data Sources: Mile High Training, Altitude Dream.com).

How I Selected the Altitude Range For The Graph

The 106° West Triathlon, first (and apparently only) held in 2016, was touted as the ‘Highest Triathlon in the World’ held at an elevation of 9,156 feet (2,791 meters). This race included quarter and half distances of the IRONMAN 140.6.

Let me know in the Comments (below) of any triathlons held at an altitude higher than this one.

Dealing With Altitude: Acclimatization and Adaptation

Two words – acclimatization and adaptation – are used to describe what happens when we travel to a higher altitude.

Acclimatization

Acclimatization refers to the immediate and short term (up to two weeks) changes that occur with altitude.

This process begins immediately upon arriving at the higher altitude. The effect we recognize as breathing harder is called ‘respiratory alkalosis’.

Within a day, the hemoglobin concentration increases. We do not have more red blood cells at this point. However, the liquid component of our blood, the plasma, decreases to normalize the oxygen content in our blood. Lower oxygen content divided by lower plasma volume equals normal oxygen concentration (but not volume) in the blood.

Acclimatization continues over about two to three weeks.

Adaptation

Adaptation describes the longer-term effects, ones that take place over several months.

With extended time at altitude, our body will produce additional red blood cells through the production of the erythropoietin (EPO) hormone. Increasing the number of red blood cells increases the amount of oxygen available to our muscles and other organs.

It takes months, typically eight months according to what I have read, for the body to produce all the additional red blood cells and for adaptation to be complete.

‘Sleep High, Train Low’

There is evidence that the ideal adaptation comes from sleeping at high altitude (between 6,600 and 8,200 feet, which is equal to 2,000 and 2,500 meters) and training at or near sea level.

Sleeping high leads to an increase in hemoglobin. Training low allows for more intense training to increase the key parameter for endurance, VO2max.

How Does Age Affect These Changes?

As seniors in the multi-sport community, we know that age changes the way we train compared with our younger competitors. But, does altitude give us an advantage or create a disadvantage on race day?

Altitude may be one of the few factors that are on our side. According to a report titled Effect of High-Altitude Exposure in the Elderly, age does not seem to be a factor in adjusting to the higher elevation. According to the authors of this study:

“Fortunately, the elderly appear to acclimatize well and after 5 days of acclimatization were physiologically almost indistinguishable from sea level. Thus, aging does not appear to impair the physiological adaptive response to either acute or chronic hypoxia, even in the presence of substantial comorbidity.”

Beautiful mountain view with the caption 'Racing at a higher altitude can mean experiencing some of the most awe-inspiring places on this planet.'
Racing in a triathlon at a higher altitude can mean experiencing some of the most awe-inspiring places on this planet.

What Can You Do To Prepare For A Triathlon At Higher Altitude?

The audience for this post is beginner and intermediate age group athletes. Therefore, I am assuming you will not invest the time and money for training at an altitude camp for several weeks.

However, even if you do, there is no guarantee of increased performance, according to many coaches and scientists. Some people do not adapt. And, the training must be tailored to the individual for it to have significant benefit. (Continue reading for more information on high altitude training.)

Nevertheless, there are ways you can prepare for a triathlon at a higher altitude.

1. Arrive at the race altitude from 2 to 14 days before the race

In a paper titled “Timing of Arrival and Pre-acclimatization Strategies for the Endurance Athlete Competing at Moderate to High Altitudes”, authors Robert F. Chapman, Abigail S. Laymon, and Benjamin D. Levine (see the complete reference in the quotation below) conclude that arriving at the race altitude 14 days before the event is the most ideal. However, they also acknowledge that this amount of time will not be practical for most, given the cost and other responsibilities related to family and work.

Arriving the night before the competition, on the other hand, is a risky strategy. This is especially true if you suffer from any disruption in sleep, a critical component of acclimatization.

While longer is better, 2 to 14 days before the race at the altitude of the event reduces performance declines. This comes from settling into a consistent pattern of quality sleep and reducing the deleterious physiological effects of altitude, such as a reduction in plasma volume.

Performance decrement at altitude appears to decline with each day of altitude residence (up to ~14 days).

Chapman, Robert F., Abigail S. Laymon, and Benjamin D. Levine, “Timing of Arrival and Pre-acclimatization Strategies for the Endurance Athlete Competing at Moderate to High Altitudes”, High Altitude Medicine & Biology, Volume 14, Number 4, 2013, pp. 319-324.
Hungry Horse Reservoir and Dam near Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. By the time I competed in the Montana triathlon, I had stayed above 5,000 feet elevation for over two weeks.

2. Pay extra attention to factors that degrade at altitude

This is in line with the previous point, but worth repeating.

First, stay hydrated. Along with lower effective oxygen, higher altitude also means lower relative humidity of the air. Therefore, fluid loss is greater than in higher humidity regions.

Also, the higher altitude may compromise your sleep. According to this TrainingPeaks article, getting sleep during the initial time at higher altitude can be difficult for some. Some people initially suffer from acute mountain sickness (AMS). Symptoms of AMS include headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue.

Give yourself time to become rested.

3. Pace yourself on race day

According to an article in Triathlete magazine, our VO2max decreases by 7.7 percent for every 1,000 meters of altitude. If you are able, go for a swim, bike, or run before the race to get a sense of how the altitude is affecting your performance. Otherwise, plan to go out slower to avoid having your body put the brakes on unexpectedly.

Remember to ease into the altitude and pace yourself as your body becomes acclimatized.

4. Train to offset performance declines that come with altitude

As we just read, our VO2max decreases with altitude even after several days of acclimatization. However, one strategy for mitigating the decline is to increase your VO2max.

In the last weeks before traveling to the higher altitude, perform harder sessions, like hill repeats, at your typical training altitude. These will simulate the feeling of working harder that will accompany racing at higher altitude.

If you want to learn more about the ins and outs of training at high altitude, I recommend listening to this podcast from Fast Talk Labs.

Final Comments

The human body is amazing in its ability to adapt to different environments. However, the comments on various websites and in academic research papers continually remind me we are all different.

Be sure to discuss with your coach or your doctor any plans to race in a triathlon or other multisport endurance event at higher altitude.

What Has Been Your Experience With Racing At Higher Altitude?

Please share in the Comments below what you have learned about training and racing in a triathlon at higher altitude?

Bright Spots in Triathlon From COVID Restrictions

I will confess that I have done my share of complaining about changes over the past year. After all, the COVID restrictions turned my triathlon schedule for 2020 upside down.

Of course, that this is one of my biggest complaints means I have nothing serious about which to grumble. This doesn’t stop me from trying, however.

Knowing that I should learn to accept what I cannot change and not complain, I started thinking of the good that has arisen from these changes.

In this post, I have listed the three I see most clearly. You probably have others. Please add them to the comments at the end.

‘Do all things without complaining or arguments.’

Philippians 2:14

Running on Different Surfaces

Running on uneven surfaces is beneficial for strengthening a wider range of muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and core. It is also good for improving balance. According to one source, off-road running lowers the risk of injury compared to road running.

Related post: Better Balance Makes for a Stronger Triathlete

During recent restrictions, some governments required a mask to be worn when within 6 feet of another person not from within your household. In these situations, I found it simpler to run on trails and grassy park areas away from the sidewalks where pedestrians and leisure walkers travel.

Training without a mask may mean avoiding people. The solution? Run where the people are not.

Training More Aerobically

If you are like most of us, you train differently when people are watching compared to when you are alone. At least one study has shown the power of training with others. Group classes and training partners tend to drive us to train harder.

This can be good.

However, if our goal is to train slowly, then training with a group can cause us to train harder than we ought.

On the other hand, when no one is watching, we are comfortable training more slowly, more aerobically. We can also train with lower weights and more repetitions when no one is watching.

Having the freedom to train aerobically and with lighter weights is good because it protects us from injury.

Shunning the Mass Swim Start

Ask most triathletes and they will tell you that one of the least pleasant parts of triathlon is the mass swim start. You can feel as if you are being attacked by other swimmers as each jockey for position. It is only in the triathlon mass start that swimming can become a contact sport.

One way race directors are creating more space between triathletes is through the time-trial swim start. With this type start, swimmers enter the water at 5 to 10-second intervals. This extends space between racers in the swim which carries over to each of the other legs.

Related post: Triathlon Across the USA: State #42 – Arkansas with time trial swim start.

What Are Positive Changes Over the Past Year?

Are there changes to triathlon from COVID restrictions over the past year that you see as positive? I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Leave your comments below.

Triathlon in the Year of COVID-19

We will remember 2020 in triathlon, as in every corner of life, as the year of COVID-19. By now, we should have enjoyed family reunions, community parades, and the Tokyo Olympics. Furthermore, I should have completed three sprint triathlons in three states.

Instead, over the past weekend I competed in my first triathlon of the season, the Arkansas triathlon in my Triathlon Across the USA quest. It was also the first triathlon of the season for most, if not all, of those with me at this event.

The race had much of the same feel as other sprint triathlons. However, many adjustments had been made by the race organizer, All Sports Productions, through discussions with USA Triathlon, the Arkansas Department of Health, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who manage the area containing the triathlon course.

In the rest of this post, I will share some of the changes forced upon this and other live, in-person triathlons and other multisport events by COVID-19.

Small Differences in Packet Pickup; Some Even Welcome

Not surprising, we were required to wear a mask during packet pickup, at least when unable to maintain spacing of 6 feet or more.

Masked triathletes waiting in line to pickup their race packets on the afternoon before the race.

Health questionnaire

We were also required to submit a completed USA Triathlon health declaration. This declaration (see the picture below) indicated any COVID-19 symptoms we were currently experiencing. It also documented contact we had had with those who had symptons.

covid-19 portion of USA Triathlon Medical COVID-19 questionnaire
Self-declaration portion of the USA Triathlon “Athlete Medical COVID-19 Questionnaire”.

Leave bikes in the transition area overnight

To minimize contact between triathletes on race morning, organizers provided the option of leaving our bikes racked in transition over night. Of course, the area was secured and monitored the entire time.

For me, leaving the bike in the transition area was welcomed. It meant I did not have to get up before daylight and be at the race site when the transition area opened in order to get a preferred spot on the bike rack.

Race Morning – Before the Start

This was the first triathlon I attended without my wife, Joy. In their pre-race email, race organizers wrote:

  • Spectators are encouraged to stay home to assist in meeting guidelines for safe events.
  • Any spectators in attendance will be required to wear masks and will have limited event access.

Joy was more than willing to ‘take one for the team’. She was able to sleep in, getting some much wanted rest. Furthermore, she did not have to wear a mask, an onerous requirement for her given the temperature and humidity. She did, however, tour the gorgeous race venue during and after packet pickup, mostly from within our air conditioned van.

Self body marking

In most triathlons, even those for which the stick-on race numbers (tattoos) are used, volunteers will mark our age on one of our calves using a felt tip marker. To minimize human contact, each athlete was instructed on the location of each body mark.

While the race organizer provided race number tattoos, I goofed up when applying one of them. As a result, I marked my race number on my right shoulder and left hand. I also marked my age on my right calf, even though I later found the age tattoo.

Masks, of course

Racers were handed a white disposable mask upon entering the transition area. Like most racers, I wore this mask until just before beginning the swim leg. When within a few yards of the water, I removed the mask and tossed it into a garbage can.

Swim, Bike, Run Against COVID

There were few significant changes to the most important part of the event – the race.

Time trial start

In past years, the DeGray Lake Triathlon involved a mass, in-water start. To reduce contact between racers, organizers decided to use a ‘time trial’ start.

With a time trial start, often used when the triathlon involves a pool swim, a racer begins every few seconds, typically from 5 to 30 seconds. Today, a swimmer began about every 5 seconds.

The time trial start leads to less interaction between racers not only during the swim but throughout the race. At one point, I heard the race director announce that, from what he observed, they may use a time trial start for all future races, even after the current crisis caused by the virus has passed.

Aid stations

The run included two aid stations at which volunteers (one per station) served water or sports drink. On this day, there were fewer people handing out drinks. Those who did had gloved hands.

After Crossing the Finish Line

After finishing the course, there were a few more differences from previous races. However, most were not significant.

Replacing some volunteers

In previous triathlons, a volunteer will remove the timing chip from the racers ankle once they have crossed the finish line. Today, we removed the timing chip ourselves and handed it to a gloved volunteer.

Also, instead of a volunteer placing the finisher medal around our neck, we collected our medal from a table.

Good food and drink even with COVID-19

Post race food, a hot dog and fruit, was provided in to-go style containers. Beverages were presented by gloved hands.

Wear a mask. Really?

Even after the race and food, we were encouraged to wear a face mask and follow social distancing protocols. The latter was possible, but with the way I was sweating after the race, there was no way I was going to wear a face mask and breathe. One had to give; you can guess which one did.

No awards ceremony

Again, to minimize contact between participants, awards were given individually by a staff member. I did not miss seeing the awards ceremony. However, if I knew more people who were racing, I may have wished it were still held.

Leave Your Questions and Comments Below

Tell us about your experience in a recent triathlon. What changes did you find?

If you haven’t raced this year, are there questions or concerns you have?

#JustKeepMovingForward 

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