Ocean swimming in triathlon can be intimidating, sure, but learning a few tricks and knowing what to expect in an ocean environment can help turn the experience into something not so bad. In fact, it can even be–dare I say–wonderful.
A triathlon open ocean swim is organic to the sport. After all, this is how triathlon was born—in the waters off the coast of San Diego, California. So at some point in your triathlon career, you really must put an ocean triathlon on your race schedule.
But if you’ve never swum in the ocean, the following tips might help.
Unlike when you swim in pools, lakes, and rivers, something you’ll notice immediately in the ocean is the vertical movement caused by tides, swells, and waves. This doesn’t necessarily have to affect your swim stroke, but preparing yourself mentally for this unique feeling is important. In calmer seas, the water will roll underneath you, almost like you’re being carried. The key is to stay relaxed and go with the flow. Keep your fingers loose during recovery and also on extension as your hand enters the water and moves forward.
If the seas are not so calm—like if you’re swimming straight into wind chop—granted, it’s no fun, but the key is to keep from fighting the water. Remember, your goal is to continue to slice through the water with a relaxed recovery, easy kicking, and executing an even roll of the head to breathe. Don’t try to swim “over” the chop or fight to stay above it. Let your entry arm angle in and slice through beneath the surface, just like always. For breathing in conditions like this, you might try looking backward and up a little to assist with a clearer breath. The visual for this is “breathing into your armpit.” That space is usually a good go-to place for a breath in rough water.
You’ll notice that you’ll ride higher in salt water than fresh water, so ocean swimming is great in terms of buoyancy. However, this also means you’ll have an unfamiliar taste in your mouth due to the salt. If you’re doing an ocean race, try to arrive at least the day before, so you can jump in the water ahead of time and get used to this new taste. If not, there’s usually room near the start on race morning to wade in and swim a little.
Ocean currents are something you’ll definitely need to think about prior to race start. They often run parallel to shore, so if they’re moving the same direction as the swim course, you’ll need to factor this into your swim start position. If you’re swimming in California, for example, the swim course might take you through the surf to the first turn buoy and then make a right turn (north) and follow a parallel route along the shore. The current, very often, will be running that same direction (south to north). In this case, you’ll have to walk further south (away from the swim start) to begin your swim because the currents will be pushing you towards the turn buoy. If you start directly in front of the first buoy, there’s a good chance you’ll be pushed too far up course, and you’ll have to turn back and swim against the current in order to round the first buoy. If the race is large enough to have multiple waves of athletes, watch the groups that start ahead of you. See where they line up. Often, race directors will adjust the swim start position, too, to account for the strength of the current on the day.
Another unique aspect of ocean swimming is the surf entry. Ocean swim courses are often set up like a rectangle. You’ll have to swim straight out to sea and through where the waves are breaking (the short leg of the rectangle), in order to get to smoother water on the other side (the long leg of the rectangle).
There are several ways to do a surf entry. I’ll start with the most basic and advance from there. The first, and most basic way to get through the surf, is to wade in, and when a wave approaches, turn sideways. Depending on the size of the wave, you might jump up, but you don’t have to for the smaller waves. You’ll be vertically oriented the whole time, like you are when you’re standing. The reason you turn sideways, rather than facing the wave with your torso, is to present a narrower cross section of your body to the wave. You’ll slip through much more easily this way. You can then continue walking and/or swimming and then jump/slide through the next wave.
The next method is to duck under the waves as the whitewater approaches. You’ll still be vertically oriented, but you’ll tuck your legs (squat) and duck your head underneath as the wave passes. You’ll want to grab onto the sand below you, if possible, to help hold you in place. Just know there’s a chance you’ll be pushed backwards by the waves because you’re still mostly upright when you do this.
The preferred method is to dive forward under the waves. As the whitewater approaches, dive just in front of the wave, grab a hold of the sand, and lay in a prone position on the bottom as the wave passes. You can then pull your feet underneath you and stand up.
To take this to the next level, you can do something called dolphin diving. This is when you dive under a wave, hold onto the sand, pull your legs under you, and then spring upward and forward in an arc. You’ll be launching yourself directly into another dive under the next wave. This will end with you holding the sand on the bottom once more. Usually, three to five well-connected leaps can get you through the ocean break. This is, by far, the fastest method of entering the water through surf.
Take some time the day before your race to practice these techniques. You’ll feel much more comfortable with just a little preparation. And ultimately, it will help you to relax into the ocean environment and enjoy one of the best aspects of triathlon that the sport has to offer.