Oh my God, you do triathlons? I have heard you get kicked in the face. I heard people punch you in the swim. I heard people have died!
Yes all of these things have happened in an open water swim. However it is not a guarantee they will happen in every race and I have some tips to help you have a better open water swim the next time around.
FYI before you read on, these are in no particular order of importance, they are all important.
Sighting can be very tricky and I am going to talk about two main points here. Keep your eyes low and look at the big picture.
Let's talk about the first one, keeping your eyes low. If you have had some sort of swim instruction/coaching or you come from a swim background you know that head position is very important for swimming efficiency. When you lift your head to sight, your legs are going to sink. It is inevitable. The key here is to use what I like to call "alligator eyes". Picture an alligator and how low their eyes are when it comes to the surface. You are striving to do the same. Keep your eyes low to the water, then turn to breathe and you do not have to sight every time you need a breath. Some people can sight every 3 breaths and some more. You need to find what works for you. Another great thing to do is watch the ITU races the next time they are on TV. Those folks can swim and you don't even realize when they are sighting some times.
The second tip on sighting that I have is to focus on the big picture. At least take a glance at the course map that someone took the time to put together. Once you have an idea of where you going, see if you can preview the course. If not see if the course is at least set up and you could go take a look at it. KNOW YOUR COURSE! Next don't try to find the bout every time you sight. The best thing to do is take a mental picture of where the buoy is. From there you can focus on a tree or landmark while you are swimming in that direction. This way you will never waste time looking around for the buoy thus dropping your legs, slowing down, etc etc. As you get closer to the mark you will be able to find the mark much easier and focus in on getting around it efficiently.
Obviously all of the technique you have learned/use in the pool should transfer to open water. There are a few things that are important to keep in mind when transitioning to open water. Some people have a tendency to swim with their eyes focused forward for two reasons. One they are too worried about finding that buoy when sighting(not anymore ;]!) and two they are worried about running in to someone's feet. If you are swimming your line and sighting, someone isn't going to just pop up out of nowhere. The second piece of technique that is helpful in open water, ocean especially, is a high, relaxed elbow during recovery. Especially important when you are dealing with waves and chop!
This is quite possibly THE most important aspect of goggles. Just because you have goggles that are great in the pool, does not mean they will work well for OWS. I prefer the TYR Special Ops 2.0 during open water. They have an awesome field of vision and the transition lenses prevent the need for multiple pairs of goggles. No matter what brand you go with you need to make sure they work for you. You should also keep in mind that tinted lenses are not great in low light situations and low light goggles will fry your eyes out of your head if it is sunny. Most people have multiple pairs. Which even route you decided to go RACE MORNING IS NOT THE TIME TO TEST GOGGLES! As with anything you should test it multiple times before you decide to try it in a race.
Drafting is 100% legal during the swim leg of a triathlon. This is the only place it is legal and so some feel as though you should take advantage of that, others feel as though it is inconsiderate. Here a few things to keep in mind when drafting. You still need to sight. If you are drafting off of someone who is swimming all over the course, how much energy are you really saving? You also need to be considerate of the swimmers around you. If you are drafting off of another swimmer and you keep bumping in to them because of your draft, that is inconsiderate and you are now impacting their race, bad move. Yes drafting can save you energy on the bike and run if done properly, especially if you are not a confident swimmer, however it can cause a laundry list of problems as well so just keep that in mind.
This is more in regards to the race situation rather than an OWS practice. If the race allows you to enter the water prior to your wave start or the start of the race, TAKE THE OPPORTUNITY! One you would be a fool not to and two, your body is going to have a chance to get used to the temperature of the water and two you will have a chance to warm up your muscles. A great pre-race warm up would be a little swimming nice, easy and relaxed. Follow this with a few pick-ups to get the blood flowing to the muscles and then round out with some easy swimming. There are times that you are not able to get in the water before the race however if you can, it will really help with the feeling of loosing your breath as soon as you jump in to race.
Unfortunately with swimming there is absolutely no way to get better to increase your comfort level then getting out and doing it. A pool is WAY different than open water and vise versa. You just need to get out and practice. Practice with a wetsuit and without. Practice stripping it off, putting it on, different goggles, how to sight, etc. Everything you are going to do on race day should be practice before hand in an OWS setting.
7. The Start
The start of an open water race or a triathlon seems to have a lot of mis understanding surrounding it. People think this is a melee with fists flying and people coming out with black eyes. This can be the case, however, it can also be avoided just as easily. If you are not confident, hold back. You race time with not be impacted all that much it you wait 30 seconds to a minute and then begin your swim. Starting off to the right or to the left and holding that line will also help prevent this. If you have a tendency to round very close to the buoy you have probably been hit a time or two. You don't get a faster time by swimming closer to the buoy. You may even gain time because you have to deal with the mess. Round the mark towards the outside and keep your line and you will be just fine.
8. Tips for athletes without access to OWS
Now for those of you who do not have access to open water, all hope is not lost. You have the ability to practice some open water situations in the pool. This will obviously not be identical however practicing this will at least help you more than not doing anything at all. Practicing swimming lengths of the pool with your eyes closed or with paper in your goggles will help with the low visibility in open water. Please only attempt this in a lane you have to yourself with plenty of space! Swimming with multiple people in one lane will also be helpful to get used to sharing space. 4 or more adults would be ideal. Last thing is, if you are a coach, grab a kickboard and give you athletes a love tap every once and awhile. There will be some contact, although minimal and they need to get used to it.
Hopefully something here is helpful for you during your open water swimming and race this season. If you find value here please share with a friend!