Win a luxurious spa weekend courtesy of Arla LactoFREE
Top Tips,  Training and Technique

Your first swim

A swimmer’s first open water event is a magical milestone on their outdoor swimming journey but it can also be a bit daunting as you swim off into the unknown. Coach Jason Tait guides you through everything you need to know to have an enjoyable event

IT’S FINALLY HERE! Race day has arrived and you are

about to embark on your first open water swim event.

You’re feeling excited, nervous and maybe a little sick.

Don’t worry, the person next to you is probably feeling

exactly the same. Whether you signed up to your event

as a personal challenge, a charity swim or a drunken bet,

it’s time to start swimming!

You have spent the winter and spring training in the

pool. Before race day you have tested your wetsuit in the

open water and practised some open water skills, such as

sighting and drafting. So what else can you do to make

sure you’re ready for your big day?

The days before your event

Food prep

A few days before the event start to

eat a little more and increase your

carbohydrate intake as part of a

balanced diet. Get your body ready for

race day by fueling it properly, making

sure you are hydrated and the tank is

full. If you are doing a longer swim (yes,

many new open water swimmers jump

straight in at 10k) and plan on taking

gels or supplements, make sure these

agree with your body beforehand. Don’t

try a new brand of gel or energy drink

on race day. You should experiment

with these in training to find a

combination that works for you.


Get an early night. Don’t stay up on a

device or drinking the night away with

friends. Most swimming events start

early, and registration is even earlier,

so you want to be nice and fresh and

prepared to wake up in good time.


Make a checklist of what you need to

take. Read your event information to

make sure you have everything they

require, such as ID. An example list

would be:

  1. Registration and event information 
  2. ID (passport/driver’s licence or

    other picture ID if needed) 

  3. Supplements and food
  4. Drinks
  5. Swim costume
  6. Wetsuit
  7. Goggles
  8. Spare goggles
  9. Swim hat
  10. Changing robe (if you have one)
  11. Flip flops (ones that you don’t mind losing)

A checklist makes sure you don’t have

the worry of forgetting things in your

excitement or panic on race day itself.

Pack the day before.

The big day

Your First Swim Image 2


Have something light to eat on the morning of your swim,

eg wholemeal toast or porridge. Eat at least a few hours

before you are due to swim and keep sipping water or

juice in the run-up to the start.


Allow plenty of time to get to the event, but don’t leave

too early (easy to say with your excitement). You don’t

want to be waiting around at the event venue too long,

especially if you are a nervous swimmer.

Expect queues for registration, toilets and food like at

any big event, but don’t let this frustrate you. Organisers

build in a good deal of time to get everybody sorted and

registered. Help them out by having everything you need

(such as ID) ready.

Follow the rules

Pay attention to the safety

briefing, race rules and registration

times. You have made it this far,

you don’t want to be late – or

worse, miss your race start

altogether. At many events if you

miss your start time you won’t be

allowed to join another wave.

Check the course

Do you know where you are going

once you get in the water? At

registration you will probably see

large boards with the course drawn

out so you can familiarise yourself

with the swim route. Once you are

happy with the course layout try

and take a walk next to it and look

for lines of sight and landmarks to

use while swimming.

Warm up

Do some light dynamic warm-

ups as your swim approaches

(arm swings, leg swings, light

stretches, jogging, etc). This will

get your heart rate up and muscles

prepped for the swim ahead. Do

some breathing exercises to help

stay calm and encourage a nice

breathing pattern.

Race time!

Your First Swim Image 3

You’re in the water now, time to get

going and do this!

Just before

Most events will allow you a short time

to acclimatise in the water and do a

short warm-up swim. This is usually

no longer than 5-10 minutes and it will

be busy, but it is very important to get

into the water. Don’t worry if you only

get a chance to do a few strokes as you

have already warmed up your muscles

on land. Acclimatise yourself to the

water temperature and ensure you are

nice and relaxed in your breathing.

Perform some breathing exercises and

exhale a few nice deep breaths in the

water. The more relaxed you are the

better your swim will be.

The start

A group start is usually the busiest part

of the race and you may get knocked

around a little, but don’t let this

unnerve you.

Get into a position in the starting

pack where you are comfortable and

have your own space. If you know you

are a slower swimmer do not start near

the front, it is likely you will get swum

over, knocked and not have a happy


Once you have selected your start

position stick with it. To stay out

of trouble start at the back and to

the right if your first turn buoy is

on the left, and vice versa. This will

ensure you are on the outside of any

funnelling into the first turn buoy.

Be selfish

Become a selfish swimmer. Only

worry about your swim, nobody else’s.

Move around swimmers to stay out of

trouble and make your swim is as easy

as possible. Try and relax, and don’t

worry about what others are doing.

This is your swim and you are going to

smash it!

Look where you are going

Remember to sight! With everything

that’s going on around you it’s common

to forget this and end up off course.

Never just follow somebody’s feet

aimlessly. They could be the best and

straightest swimmer in the world or

the worst. If they go off course, so will



You may find yourself swimming on

somebody’s toes or by somebody’s side.

This actually makes your swim a little

easier and is known as drafting. The

only unwritten rule is not to constantly

touch somebody’s toes as it can be


You are nearly there!

As you approach the finish, start to

sight a little more often. If you have

some energy left, sprint towards that

finish line. As you approach the line,

kick your legs a little more, being very

careful not to go so hard you cramp up.

This action will get the blood flowing

into your legs so when you stand to get

out the water you won’t be as dizzy.

Finish lines can also vary in open

water events. Some have a board that

you touch or swim under, and your

timing chip will stop at that point.

Others finish out of the water on the

bank; if this is the case make sure you

run to the finish line – there nothing

worse than putting in a big swim

effort to overtake somebody only to

have them run past you before the

finish line!


If it’s a cold day, don’t hang around. Get

changed into warm clothes as soon as

possible. Collect your medal, race souvenir,

timing slip and don’t forget to smile.

Post on social media how awesome you

are and tell the story for a week at

work. You are awesome, you are an

open water swimmer!

ASA Level 2 Open Water Specialist Coach, STA Open Water Specialist Coach, ASA Level 2 Coaching & Teaching, STA Open Water Tutor, Wiltshire ASA Open Water Committee Member, Fellow Institute of Swimming (FIOS).

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.