Life in the Fast Lane


Open Water Newbie No More

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Anyone who gets into triathlon knows that at some point, he/she will have to overcome the dreaded first-ever open water experience. Just thinking about it usually strikes people with fear and trembling and inexperienced swimmers would usually think twice about getting into triathlon just because of this. The idea of swimming out into the middle of nowhere, not knowing what lies beneath, getting kicked on the face by other swimmers, not being able to finish the swim leg, drowning... the least of fears can go on and on and paralyze people even before they can even get into the water.

And for competitive swimmers, this also means a completely different ballgame compared to what he/she is used to. First, there are no lane dividers in the ocean, lake, or sea; second, he/she will most likely be swimming not just with one or two other people, but with hundreds of them at the same time; third, unlike a swimming pool with calm water, the open water can be really choppy and unpredictable.

In the Regent 5150 triathlon held last June 7th, I was about to plunge headfirst — literally — into not just my first-ever open water race, but my first-ever official open water swim. Usually when I'm at the beach, I do swim far away from the shore, but never did I time myself, actually measure the distance away from the shore, or do the proper strokes. Regent would be my first time to test my swim skills and preparedness for open water swimming.

I was a bundle of nerves minutes before the race.

I'd like to share what I've learned from this experience to hopefully ease newbie triathletes' fears and get you excited about the swim leg.

Here are some tips based on what I did to prepare, and what I wish I did before the race:

1) Train with other people

To simulate what triathletes call the "washing machine effect", in the pool, practice sharing a lane with other people and swim close to one another. If you're the type who gets paranoid when there's someone really close to you, this will give you a glimpse of what it would be like during swim start and during the turns near buoys. Also, if your swim pace is more or less the average of everyone else's in your wave/heat, expect that you're all swimming at the same pace. During my race, I was kicked on the sides by the men I had caught up to (I managed to overtake the women at some point and I was swimming alongside men), and that hurt. But I guess through time, one will be able to develop his/her own anti-washing machine effect techniques.

Before swim start.
Photo from

2) Practice certain skills: breathing techniques, turning, sighting, etc.

If you're a control freak like me, you'd most likely have read up on or come across these terms or skills; I'm writing them down to help refresh your memory. And if you've never come across these terms before, read on and try these skills out in your next swim session.

Bilateral breathing is when you're able to breathe on both sides. I'm a left-breather, but I practiced breathing to the right before Regent 5150. This is because you don't know where the buoys will be placed and you also don't know the direction of the waves until the actual race. If a wave comes at you from the side you normally breathe from, it's best to be able to know how to breathe from the other side.

Turning is a useful skill to have when you're approaching a buoy (which will usually mark your distance and/or where you'll need to turn). There are at least two ways to do it (check out YouTube for demo videos) but do what feels right for you. The most important thing is knowing how to do it in such a way that helps you shave off precious seconds from your time.

Sighting is probably the hardest thing to incorporate in your practice sessions because it's unnatural, especially for competitive swimmers who have practiced minimizing unnecessary movements especially for races. This is when you'll have to lift your head every now and then to check if you're swimming in a straight line, or if the buoy is still in sight. In a pool, look at an object a distance away (i.e. a tree, a pole, the lifeguard chair, etc.) and practice looking up every few strokes to see if you're in line with that object. This will help simulate what you'll be looking out for, i.e. the buoys, come race day.

3) Try to incorporate a recon workout before race day

If you're able to, try a practice workout in open water before the actual race. This will help you visualize the distance, help allay any fears you have of the depths below or the distance you'll be swimming, etc. And if you can, bring an experienced triathlete friend with you. It's always helpful to get handy tips from him/her and get those nerves out of the way.

4) Use only what you've practiced extensively with come race day

And this is especially true for goggles, which, unfortunately, I learned the hard way in Regent 5150. What happened to me was I used my prescription Speedos (which are at least 1.5 years old and hadn't really been used in months) on race day, although I did train with them the week before. Normally, I use another pair. When I got into the water on race day, the foam suctions of both lenses popped off in the water and I had to bear with water entering my goggles every few meters; I had to keep releasing water out of my goggles every now and then, which was not only a hassle, but it ate a lot of time. If my goggles didn't fail me like they did, I would've probably met my target time. I just thank God that I did a decent job, considering what happened.

It might be tempting to get yourself a new pair of goggles, especially those wider ones specially designed for open water swimming, but don't do it. But if you do plan to try out a new pair for the race, though, break it in weeks before race day; don't just buy one a few days before the race.

5) Study the race course

Is it a clockwise turn? Is it counterclockwise? Knowing the direction of the course (and how long each "leg" will be) will help a lot when you're actually out there.

I was listening to people who were talking about our clockwise route.

6) Pee before you go

Depending on your excretory system, you don't wanna gamble on anything. If you can, line up by the portalets and do number one minutes before you take off. If the last time you peed was in the house or your hotel room hours before, chances are, while in the water, you may feel Mother Nature's call. I think that while swimming won't be the best time to answer her call.

7) Know where to place yourself

Normally, you'll be divided by age groups in a triathlon. For Regent 5150, however, we were grouped according to our target times. Regardless of grouping styles, it'll be helpful if you can already visualize where, among the sea of competitors, you plan to start from.

Are you comfortable being all the way in front? If so, that means you'll have to be one of the faster ones in order to avoid the washing machine effect. Are you comfortable being all the way behind? This would be ideal if you think you're a slow swimmer; if it turns out that you're much faster, then most likely you'll get kicked by the slower swimmers. Are you comfortable swimming far away from the buoy? This means you'll have to sight properly, but the plus side is you'll avoid "running into" people who will crowd around the buoys at the turns.

The elite men's group.
Photo from

8) While swimming, think happy thoughts

It's hard not to imagine what lies below, especially when you see that it's getting deeper... and darker. It's also hard not to get distracted by the sheer number of people swimming alongside you. But try to focus instead on your breathing, on your kicks, on your pulls, and think positive. I was actually praying while swimming, thanking God for this opportunity to race and committing my performance to Him. This helped a lot so I wouldn't dwell on external factors like the depths of the sea, my malfunctioning goggles, getting kicked on the sides, etc.

9) If you panic, know how to tread — and how long to do it

Thankfully this didn't happen to me, but my triathlete friends told me that if it did, to just lightly tread in the water, take deep breaths, calm myself, and take off once again. If you can, don't hang on to the buoy ropes and don't take too long, because race officials might think there's a problem and could potentially stop you from continuing the race.

10) Arms over legs

Not only is it inefficient to kick in a thrashing manner, but it will just slow you down and tire you out faster. Remember: you'll still have to bike and run. Use your legs there. In the water, your arms should propel you forward more than your legs should. Strengthen your arms by doing pullbuoy workouts before race day.

Once it's all over, when you see the shore, rejoice! You've made it, and you should give yourself a big pat on the back.

After my 1.5K swim. I survived!
Photo by

Considering a triathlon? Don't let your open water fears hold you back! You might find that you'll actually like it and it will motivate you to join even more races.

After my swim, I was so energized, so excited because of what I had accomplished, that I couldn't wait for the next race. If only I could've done another 1K or so, I probably would have, to be honest. Haha!

Hope this little post of mine helped you somehow. See you in the water!

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