FEATURES,  View from the Water

Why do triathletes hate open water swimming?

We spent last weekend at the Triathlon Show in Esher and it gave us plenty of opportunity to talk to triathletes and would-be triathletes about open water swimming. These are some of the things we heard:

  • “I hate swimming.”
  • “It’s my worst part in a triathlon.”
  • “I haven’t tried open water yet but the thought terrifies me.”
  • “You’ve just got to get through it, haven’t you?”

It does make you wonder why anyone with those opinions takes up triathlon but we’ll leave that question for another time. The more interesting question for us is: why do people feel this way about open water? When we talk to open water swimmers we only hear how much they love their sport.
It seems that triathlon does a great job of introducing people to open water only to give them an extremely stressful and unpleasant experience.
We know from the Triathlon Industry Survey that the majority of triathletes have a running background and that only around 15 per cent were swimmers. This means a lot of people in triathlon are inexperienced swimmers and are therefore not comfortable in water. Training for three sports means triathletes are nearly always under time pressure. Often they don’t appreciate how long it takes to develop swimming skills and water confidence. Unless they have convenient access to open water most of the limited training they do find time for will be in a pool.
On event day they find themselves in water at temperatures they haven’t acclimatised to, surrounded by people who are equally stressed out, and focused primarily on getting to their bikes as quickly as possible. Having little pacing experience, and pumped full of adrenalin (and caffeinated energy gels), they start swimming too fast, and are exhausted and struggling after a few hundred metres. At this point the more experienced swimmers who have paced their efforts better will swim over the top of them. The rest of the swim will be a battle for survival.
Given that they nearly always race in wetsuits they rarely try swimming without so don’t get to experience the delightful sensation of cool water on their skin. For some, their only open water experience is race day when their objective is to get out of the water as quickly as possible. Triathlon venues are often chosen for practical rather than aesthetic reasons with the need for a safe bike route overriding most other considerations. The swim will invariably be a circuit, finishing in much the same place as it starts. The starts and turns will be crowded, congested and chaotic.
Is it any wonder then that many triathletes don’t like open water swimming?
There is hope though. We also spoke to people that have been involved in triathlon for a few years and we heard things like:

  • “I’m still not a good swimmer but swimming’s become my favourite part of triathlon.”
  • “There’s nothing better after a stressful day at work than a relaxing swim at my local lake.”

So if you are a triathlete struggling with open water swimming, don’t despair. Try to get some open water experience outside of the racing environment, relax and learn to love swimming. Trying to go fast before you’re truly comfortable in the water is the wrong way to go about it. Learn to love open water and you will almost certainly swim faster too.
And remember, if you don’t already read H2Open Magazine, we publish plenty of stories to inspire you and help you make the most of open water swimming.


I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year.