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Old 06-17-2009
karrotabq karrotabq is offline
Junior Member
Join Date: Jun 2009
Posts: 5
Default My first open-water swim: mixed feelings (or: where's that wall, again?)

BACKGROUND: I began TI drills 10 weeks from my first sprint triathlon. At the time, I could swim a mile comfortably (but boredly) and thought dropping my long, boring swims to focus on technique would be a reasonable trade-off. It is now 6 weeks from the race. About 2 practices ago, something clicked, and I “got” my stroke. It is now 6 weeks from the event. I have not swum a mile nonstop in the pool since starting TI, but typically swim for an hour twice a week, mixing drills and laps (e.g., 5x100). I can keep myself at 16 strokes per lap for most of the workout, and my interval times match or exceed those from before I began the TI program. I've been thrilled.

Yesterday, I finally got into open water. I was in a pond ˝ a mile wide, and swam with my mentor across and back, in a wetsuit. I was disappointed how much the open water unnerved me. I found it difficult to focus on my stroke, and my upper arms are actually SORE today – something that hasn’t happened since I started training. My spotting was poor to nonexistent. And, worst yet, I found myself stopping 5-6 times on each trip across. Argh! I think I’m too used to having that wall to rest on. The coldness of the water made me hesitant to hide my head all the way. (OK – 68 degrees, but that’s cold to me – I have no fat and chill very easily!) And my legs cramped toward the end! (Just flipped onto my back and was fine.)

I completed the swim. The distance (1 mile) itself wasn’t a problem – I think all my issues are in my head. And I feel disappointed. My questions:

1) Did I make the wrong move by switching to TI this close to a race? I don’t think I can go back to my old stroke, but maybe swimming a mile in the pool nonstop would give me some confidence?
2) Is my experience typical of an open-water first-timer?
3) How do I get past “needing the wall”?
4) How can I help myself to relax more in open water? I know a quiet, still pond is nothing compared to race day...

I am trying to do as many more open water swims as possible before the race (which is – blessedly – a “short” ˝ mile). I think I could really grow to love open water swimming, if only it didn’t make me feel so clumsy. Thanks for any advice!
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Old 06-17-2009
naj naj is offline
Senior Member
Join Date: Nov 2008
Location: San Francisco, CA
Posts: 624
Default You can do more than you imagined!

Originally Posted by karrotabq View Post

1) Did I make the wrong move by switching to TI this close to a race? I don’t think I can go back to my old stroke, but maybe swimming a mile in the pool nonstop would give me some confidence?
2) Is my experience typical of an open-water first-timer?
3) How do I get past “needing the wall”?
4) How can I help myself to relax more in open water? I know a quiet, still pond is nothing compared to race day...
Karrotabq, first off let me welcome you to the ultimate challenge open water swimming! You've pulled yourself out of a comfort zone that I know many top swimmers would never even try.

Your first time in the open water is text book for nearly all of us, so I'm not surprised that your technique "seemed" to fail you. I put the quotation marks there for a reason, most of what your going through is probably in your head.

When I first got into open water swimming earlier this year my first teacher - TI coach Leslie Thomas - gave a three hour seminar. During the seminar she spelled out some of the things that people freak out about;

the cold
salty taste
not being able to see the bottom (no visibility)
not being able to touch the bottom
not being able to hang onto a wall
choppy water
not being able to see where you are going
aquatic life

These are legitimate things that one feels for the first time in a natural body of water and based on all the movies we've seen (Jaws anyone, The Perfect Storm etc?), and stories on the news (Child loses arm to shark), these are fair things to freak out about.

But here's the good news, all these things you can overcome!

The Cold

The cold you feel is (only) a sensation - as long as you feel warm in your core, you're okay. The best thing to do is to take deep breaths and slowly go in. I won't lie it will feel like your feet are burning but over time the longer you stay in the feeling goes away (usually after five minutes). I can speak for many open water swimmers on this site when I say you'd be amazed at what the body can do under intense circumstances.

Another thing to know about the cold is to know it won't go away immediately. You should start small 15 minutes and build on that. Don't go for 30 minutes your first shot this is a great way to head into hypothermia and you don't want that. When you feel stiffness in your arms, your jaws locking, or your fingers looking like they have arthritis (what is called "the claw"), get out of the water and get warm. Have a cap to put on your head and hot liquids to warm you up once you leave the water. Get into warm clothes immediately after you exit.

And just so you know, I weigh 175lbs wet and can hang for 50 minutes easily without a wetsuit and you can to as you get more and more use to the water.

No wall? No Problem!

This is the easiest of your mental blocks to fix. You say you swam with a wetsuit. Well guess what? I'll bet you $100.00 you can't sink in that thing try as you might it won't happen. They are made to keep you buoyant so a wall becomes irrelevant. When you feel tired or need to think just float on your back. If its salt water then you don't even need a wetsuit!

I swim in the Bay of San Francisco in a bathing suit only and I am the worst - repeat worst - person at treading water but salt water is so dense that my body naturally floats. So remember stay with your body don't leave it and when you need to stop, flip on your back or just remain fixed and your head will be far above the water I promise.

Staying in your body

"How can I help myself to relax more in open water? I know a quiet, still pond is nothing compared to race day.."

Yeah, your right a pond is totally different from race day and relaxing is a key. Remember you practice Kaizan swimming "mindfull swimming" You know something most of those swimmers don't; how to swim effortlessly, balanced, and for long stretches with minimal effort. That being said, I'd advise not getting in the middle of the pack come race day. Set off to the side and let the alphas go first. Plot out your course and keep within your own body. Set a target to sight on (a tall building, tree, boat etc) and take a peek out of the water every 20 strokes or so to make sure your on course, don't rely on other swimmers they might be off course and take you with them. When you sight only raise your head high enough so your goggles are above the water any more and your legs and hips will drop.

On race day remember - swimming is a contact sport. Folks will climb over you, kick you, punch you and knock you goggles and cap off. Stay focused and concentrate on a couple of principles of a strong TI whole stroke (like mail slot entry, wide tracks etc). Before you know it the race will be over and you'll have accomplished a great feat.


One last thing, I know this is a lot but you can do it. I was right where you were and thought there was no way I could get past anything with respect to the things I mentioned folks freak out about concerning open water, but six days a week for at least 45 to 50 minutes a day I swim a mile or two miles in what started out as 49 degree weather in March and is now 60 degrees (too me that's a sauna). I didn't do it all at once but over time I kept going further and further now I go down to the beach, walk into the water and just shoot off towards a certain route I've chosen for the day. No need to psyche myself up, I just go!

I never think about the salty taste, what lurks beneath or anything else I only concentrate on my stroke. I swim with the seals , jellyfish, sand-sharks, and dodge power boats, and face currents that can come at me up to 5.6 miles per hour with ease and I just learned to swim back in October of last year!

You can do this karrotabq, you've already gotten in just keep going! Your doing great!

I'm always excited to have newbies in open water and if there is anything else I can help you with, just email me at

Oh and by the way, next we are gong to get you out of that wetsuit and swim skin only!!!

Keep Swimming and best of luck!

Last edited by naj : 06-17-2009 at 04:18 AM.
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Old 06-17-2009
Rhoda Rhoda is offline
Senior Member
Join Date: Nov 2008
Posts: 402

The sore arms may be due to the wetsuit. Even the thinnest ones require you to work a bit more to bring your arms up and around.
If you still have 6 weeks to go, and you've already done your first mile in open water, you'll probably be okay. I think most people have your issues when they first start. I remember thinking that I really should have been working more on my back stroke after my first lake swim, since I was doing so much of it. :-)
Lack of vision, since open water is rarely as clear as pool water, may contribute to some of the issues people have when they start.
This all gets better with practice. Some things that might help:
  • Do a short warmup with your head above water, then get out and recover for 5 minutes or so before starting your swim
  • If you can't do that, splash cold water on your face before you actually start to prepare the vagus nerve for the cold
  • Wear earplugs
  • Have something to eat about an hour before hand. Having food in your gut keeps you warmer.
Good luck, and try to get at least five more open water swims in before your event.
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Old 06-17-2009
don h don h is offline
Join Date: Nov 2008
Posts: 64
don h
Default sighting in open water

my first tri was a 1/2 mile open water swim. i kept getting off line.

terry's method of briefly raising your head for a quick snapshot of a buoy or other marker is very helpful, but takes some practice. the way i'm doing it right now (maybe every 10 strokes or so) is to raise your head up, then down quickly (for the "snapshot"). i do this while my right arm is extended in "spear" position (or maybe "catch"). start back with right hand/arm right after you put your head back down after the snapshot.

i would practice this until very comfortable with it. you'll save lots of energy, and strokes, and feel more in control.

don h
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Old 07-06-2009
lvigrd lvigrd is offline
Junior Member
Join Date: Mar 2009
Posts: 7
Default My first open water swim

I just had to say I experienced my first OWS swim today. I started TI in April and never thought I'd master the art of breathing (I still can only breathe to my left). I've been working on drills and some full stroke, but have never swum straight yardage. Today, I went to Thoreau's Walden Pond and hiked out to the other end of the pond, and swam the 1/2 mile back to the beach area. WOW, it was so wonderful. The water was warmer than my local pool (no wetsuit). I was totally relaxed and never tired. I really could have done it again, but will save that for another time--I didn't want to ruin my perfect swim. I struggled with sighting a bit, and zigzagged a bit, but otherwise it was a PERFECT first OWS. My time was 16 minutes, but I don't know how, I am way slower in the pool. Thank you TI and everyone on this forum.

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Old 07-14-2009
vol vol is offline
Senior Member
Join Date: Nov 2008
Posts: 175

Originally Posted by karrotabq View Post
I found myself stopping 5-6 times on each trip across. Argh! I think I’m too used to having that wall to rest on.
karrotabq, how could you stop 5-6 times in the pond? It was that shallow?
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Old 08-12-2009
nedpelger nedpelger is offline
Junior Member
Join Date: Feb 2009
Posts: 13
Default Quick Learning Curve?

I found similar challenges in my first open water swims, but the learning curve was steep. I quickly enjoyed pond swimming to pool (or Endless Pool) swimming. Have you also found that to be true?
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Old 09-06-2009
wbayek wbayek is offline
Junior Member
Join Date: Aug 2009
Posts: 9

How did the swim and sprint go, karrotabq?
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Old 09-06-2009
woody-som woody-som is offline
Junior Member
Join Date: Nov 2008
Posts: 16

I did my first ever open water swim last month in the sea for charity. Never swam outside of a pool before, and a mile wasn't a problem, it was that if I wanted or actually had to stop (im asthmatic) I couldn't. Well I put my trust in the wetsuit, just as well because I really don't float, and after 10mins my lungs said I had to stop, i just rolled onto my back and lay there for a few mins, after that I did the rest of the swim without any problems. I Knew I could do the distance, but I took it easy so I knew I could get across and even with the rest it took me 41mins. The key is to relax, and when I wasn't sighting, I'd swim as much as possible with my eyes closed, I do that in the pool, and I can really relax and swim well. Practice sighting, even if it's in the safety of the pool, that is really valuable, and when you go into the open water, before you get in, look for landmarks high up that you'll be able to spot when low in the water.
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