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
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:
- Registration and event information
- ID (passport/driver’s licence or other picture ID if needed)
- Supplements and food
- Swim costume
- Spare goggles
- Swim hat
- Changing robe (if you have one)
- 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
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.
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.
You’re in the water now, time to get going and do this!
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.
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 swim.
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.
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.
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 annoying.
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). southwestswim.co.uk