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Open Water Swimming For Beginners - How To Begin

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Swimming in open water is your goal, where to start? I will assume that you already know how to swim. If not, take some lessons, join a YMCA or a masters swimming team and learn the crawl or freestyle. There are a few things that you can do in the pool to prepare for swimming in open water; bilateral breathing, head lifting and stroke rate training.
  • First of all, breathing on both sides, or bilateral breathing, is a must. Is this within your physical capabilities? Stand up and twist the upper half of your body to the right and then to the left. Then turn your head to the right and left. SCHEZAM!!!

    Learning to breathe on both sides is possible. Why is this necessary? Imagine or perform the following experiment. Find an open space about 400 yards long. Select a target and try to walk straight toward it EXCEPT close your eyes and turn your head, looking to the right every 2 steps. Sneak a look forward every 10 steps. Vision in the water will be even harder because your forward view may be restricted depending upon wave conditions, fog in your goggles or glare from the sun reflecting off of the water. This is also assuming strict concentration upon straight line swimming, a difficult task for your first open water swim.

    Breathing on both sides accomplishes two main goals. It tends to "even out" your stroke so that you will naturally swim straighter. Ha, ha, you already KNOW how to swim straight, right? But that is in the pool. Think of the available cues, lane lines on the side and a black line on the bottom to guide your progress. Open water is much different. In addition to the lack of visual cues available in the pool, the water is colder, there might be some waves and the 'pool length' can be as long as a mile!

    The second advantage to bilateral breathing is that it will allow you to see to the right and left. When swimming in the ocean, the usual course traverses down and back along the beach. With single side breathing, half of your race will have NO visible cues toward the shore. Watching the shoreline is extremely helpful for straight swimming in the ocean. Other advantages include being able to breath away from oncoming waves or fumes from boats and snubbing your trainer in escort swims if he/she makes you mad.

  • Another skill to practice in the pool is lifting your head to see forward while swimming. The easiest way is to lift your head forward just before taking a breath to the side. I use the forward motion to look and then breathe to the side. Breathing head forward is not suggested since it requires too much energy to lift the head high enough for a breath and will cause slower swimming. Swim head up freestyle in the pool and see how difficult it is compared with head down swimming.

    Try to get comfortable with this peek forward in the pool where it is relatively calm. It will be more difficult in open water, especially in the ocean.

    How often is it necessary to look forward? That depends upon your straight line swimming ability coupled with course conditions. Ideally, the less head lifting, the better, but swimming off course is also not advantageous. Initially, try only looking forward every 10 strokes (each arm counts as one).

  • Temperatures in open water are usually colder and may require a quicker stroke rate - stroke rate is how many arm pulls you take in a minute. In open water, strokes can be counted once for each arm as it starts pulling through the water. The rate is determined by counting each arm stroke for one minute (or counting for 30 seconds and multiplying by 2, or counting for 15 seconds and multiplying by 4). The best open water swimmers in the world have stroke rates between 70 and 100 strokes per minute, with women generally on the higher end of that scale.

    A faster stroke rate will assist in keeping a swimmer warmer in cold water. Have a friend time your rate in the pool. If it is under 60, you may want to work on increasing it to better handle colder temperatures.

    Don't get frustrated if increasing your stroke rate is difficult. People usually do not have a daily activity where their arm muscles exercise 'aerobically'. Swimmers develop "aerobic arms" through years of training. A runner's aerobic capability may not automatically transfer to the pool where the arms are the primary motor instead of the legs. Likewise, I can swim comfortably at 80 strokes per minutes after years of training, but watch out if I'm out running; I sound like a steam locomotive.

  • One more suggestion with which some coaches may disagree; modifying the stroke recovery. The recovery is how a swimmer brings the arm out of the water and back to the front after completing a stroke. Many times coaches teach swimmers to sharply bend their elbow during the recovery. This usually brings the hand close to the surface of the water. This type of recovery may not work as well in waves. A majority of open water marathon swimmers use a straight arm recovery as opposed to a bent elbow recovery. I believe a straight arm recovery works better in waves and also helps reduce strain on the shoulder. The pectoral muscles work more to recover the arm when it is straight while the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles work more to recover the arm when it is bent at the elbow.

    Experiment with your recovery and see what works best for you, bent, straight, or somewhere in between. All types have been used by fast swimmers and world record holders; Janet Evans being a prime example of a successful straight arm recovery swimmer.

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