Josh Amberger is an Australian long-distance professional triathlete who’s known to be the fastest swimmer in long-distance triathlon. He was the first out of the water at Kona in 2017 & 2018. Josh is sponsored by Zone3 and races in the Vanquish Wetsuit. Here he writes about the ways open water swimming is different to the swimming pool and why it presents a more challenging swimming environment to the common triathlete.

Open water swimming brings a large variety of differences to pool swimming. A lot of triathletes will grow accustomed to only swimming in pools and then struggle when being introduced to open water situations. The main differences between the two types of swimming are detailed below.

1. There’s no tumble turns off the wall.

This means there’s no continual or free speed from the push and streamline off the wall, resulting in an overall slower swim than you’d be used to in the pool, and a harder one at that. However, this is easy to train for. Even a semi-regular, easy but continuous 30-60-minute swim in open waters can help improve the difference in swimming you may feel going from the pool to open water. 

2. There’s no black line.

Obviously, in the open water you must navigate your course. This requires practice, and often some sort of new technique that’s not needed in the pool. Whether it’s a training swim or a race, create markers for yourself to swim towards. The skill of sighting continually needs practice, because the reality is that it’s most difficult to sight something with such short glimpses between strokes, and along a plane of moving water.

Failing that, follow some feet or bubbles in front of you, and laugh about your terrible off-piste lines later on. 

3. Conditions Vary

Currents, chop from wind and swell from waves are all things that can disrupt your rhythm and confidence in the open water. These are things that can be experienced to a small degree in an outdoor pool, particularly during peak training times, but most often need to be experienced by the athlete in the open water. Simple acknowledgment before a training swim or race that conditions can change during an open water swim at any given moment is advantageous, and can give you the mental tools to help deal with any situation you find yourself in. I’m writing this as I head off to the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, which is probably the most treacherous swim in triathlon. So, this is something I’m keeping in mind when heading into the race!

4. Water density and buoyancy are always different

Saltwater, fresh water, wetsuit, non-wetsuit. Thus, the athlete’s feel for the water can change dramatically. Expose yourself to all these elements and identify any weaknesses or inconsistencies in performance in each environment. You can choose what you want to do with this information, be it either to avoid races with non-wetsuit swims or improve your swimming to be able to better handle a non-wetsuit swim.

Interestingly, I know some poor swimmers who hate swimming in wetsuits, so really, everyone has different preferences. But in my opinion, these athletes probably just don’t have a good wetsuit, because a well created high performance wetsuit like the Zone3 Vanquish simply makes swimming open water that much more enjoyable!

5. There is very little etiquette in open water swims

That is: compared to what you may be used to if you train at a civilised pool. A top tip for open water swimming is to try your best to be comfortable swimming in a crowded space. Group swimming in open water can help any anxieties you might feel on race day about open water swimming in packed spaces, such as off the start line or around turning buoys. Practice scenarios of being ‘boxed in’, and practice maneuvers to get out of such a situation if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Something inevitable in open water swimming is taking a knock or two to your face or limbs. I wouldn’t of course say to go practice for that, but maybe tactically knowing it can happen, can help you remain calm when it does!

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