Dipping your toe in the ocean for a swim is a very different prospect to jumping into a nice heated indoor swimming pool and presents a new range of considerations that you should be aware of. The tips below will help you to be prepared for whatever the elements might throw at you and ensure you get the best from your swim.
Ocean swimming can be a very disorienting experience. Between the jostling and bumping from other swimmers, the rolling waves and the push of the currents, it is extremely easy to lose your bearings and there is potential for some people to panic. It’s common sense, but make sure you give yourself a few test runs in an actual ocean before the day of your swim. Lap swimming at your local indoor pool could not be more different to swimming in the open sea, both physically and mentally.
Nothing beats real-world experience and the more you can simulate the true conditions of an ocean swim event the better. For instance, if you never wear a swim cap when you train, but you’re required to wear one during the race (so lifeguards can spot you easily if you get in trouble), try swimming with a cap a few times before the race. It can take some getting used to. Try to get out with a group of swimmers so that you can get a feel for swimming in a bunch, it is much safer this way also.
If you’re entering a swim event with a running start, where hundreds of people are running into the water at the same time, you have to keep calm. There will be a lot of people trying all heading towards the same buoy and you may experience some natural jostling for position.
If you’re just swimming the event as a challenge and you don’t care about your time, your best bet is to wait a few seconds until the main group takes off before entering the water. This will allow you to acclimate slowly without feeling overwhelmed. If you want to compete, then you have to put on your game face right away and jostle for position. After a few hundred metres, there will be some good separation and you should be able to get into a comfortable rhythm.
Water clarity, weather and swell can all have an impact on your ability to sight well during an ocean swim. Most events have big, bright buoys spread throughout the course to keep you on track. If you can manage to swim the straightest line to each buoy you will swim close to the actual distance of each race. It is common to add 10-15% to the event distance by veering off course and being unable to swim in a straight line. The way to avoid this is to “sight” as much as you can without exhausting yourself. You can do this by picking your head up any way you’d like during your race to spot the next buoy. When you pick your head up, your hips and legs drop, which makes your stroke much tougher to perform. Beginners are often better off sighting with a few strokes of breaststroke to get a clear view of where they are.
No matter what you do, you’re going to swallow some water, but you can avoid swallowing a Big Gulp’s worth by learning how to bilateral breathe (breathe from each side of your body so you can adjust away from the waves) and by only opening your mouth a small way for air. Taking big, gasping breaths is the number one way you’ll end up with a mouth full of ocean.
Salt water plus skin plus the constant friction of your arms rotating against your armpits can lead to swim burn. Swim burn is basically a chaffing that can occur around your armpits or along the edges of your togs or wetsuit. Depending on how compact your stroke is, you may or may not be prone to it. Also, you might not realise you have it until you dry off after the swim. Luckily, there are plenty of products on the market that can help to avoid the problem. A thin layer of anti-chaffing cream spread on areas that you think might be affected will help to keep this from happening.
When you train in your pool, you’re either standing in the shallow end between sets or you’re hanging on the lane ropes or edge. Even if you’re swimming a kilometer straight in a pool, you’re bracing yourself against a solid object (the wall) for turns. Once you leave the sand and head out to sea for an ocean race, the next solid object you stand on will be the sand again when you return. If you’re swimming for 30 minutes or more, make sure you give yourself a time to adjust to being back on land. Some first-timers go to run out of the water, only to realise their balance is a little off as they stumble and maybe even fall. We’ve all seen it before and it’s no big deal, but you can avoid looking like a rookie by taking just a few seconds to gather yourself as you come back on land. Another good idea is to give your legs a good strong kick for the final 20m or so to get the blood flowing well through them before you suddenly stand up and ask them to do all the work.