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Open water swimming season is here, which means now is a good time to get back in the water and gain more confidence for those upcoming races. At Playtri, we teach Five Pillars of Open Water Swimming based on decades of experience and research that we have learned apply to all triathletes. Whether you are a beginner or already competing at a high level, here are the Five Pillars on which to build a strong open water swim.


1.      Visualization: For some, Open Water Swimming is an anxiety producing experience. Because of this, we teach our athletes to utilize visualization during their training so that when race day comes you can swim confidently with minimal thought or decision making. Visualization helps eliminate surprises and spur of the moment decisions during the race. Set aside 5-10 minutes every other day during your build and taper phases, and on race day prior to start, to visualize how your swim is going to go. To make sure that visualization has a positive affect on your race, keep these three things in mind.

a.      Know your course and potential conditions. What direction are you swimming in? Where’s the sun likely to be? What are possible water conditions (waves, swells, etc.) you might face?

b.      Know what you want to do and envision yourself doing it. Envision your start position, your strong stroke, your confidence, how you will respond calmly if your goggles are knocked off, and how you will exit the water with a smile on your face because you’re going to nail this swim!

c.      DON’T visualize (or vocalize) the things you DON’T want to do! Negative self talk and imagery is not helpful in achieving your goals, so don’t do it. Be realistic and stay positive!

2.      Warm up: The swim warm up is THE most important warm up on race day since you hit the water first. Your swim warm up should be the last portion of your warm routine and should finish about 15 minutes before the race start. Depending on the event, you will end up either an in-water or dryland warm up. For an in-water warm up, begin with easy swimming and drills that help you focus on good form. Then sprinkle in a few brief pickups and end with a minute or two at race effort. For a dryland warm up, bring along some resistance tubing. Start with shoulder rotations, arm circles, and upper body twists, then use your resistance tubing to do single- and dual-arm pull drills finishing with 30-60 seconds of single-arm pull drills at race cadence.

3.      Starting position: For mass starts, never line up in the middle, unless you really want to experience what clothing feels like in a washing machine. Instead, line up at the front of the group on either side so that you have clean water to swim in at the start. Also, remember to line up on the side opposite of your preferred breathing side, so that you can see the other swimmers when you take a breath.

4.      Drafting & sighting off other athletes: Utilize the other athletes to improve your swim. Ideally, you spend the whole swim drafting of an athlete who is slightly faster than you with your head within 1-2 feet of the other athlete’s hip, never having to forward sight, using them for sighting, and enjoy swimming in their wake. Practice getting comfortable swimming this way, by regularly working out with other athletes and practicing this skill. You can practice this skill in the pool or open water.

5.      Continuous swimming: Barring personal danger, keep on moving forward at all times. It may be difficult in a large pack or going around buoy turns, but getting started from a full stop is hard. If you need a break, then utilize a different stroke like breaststroke, backstroke, or even doggie paddle. But keep swimming!


Building on these Five Pillars can set you up for a great swim. Start practicing these today – join us at a Playtri Open Water Swim if you have one available locally. Good luck this year and I look forward to seeing you at the races!


Coach Jim Rowe is a Playtri Level 3 Coach, and also holds a USA Triathlon Level I Coaching Certification, a UESCA Triathlon Coaching Certification, and a TRX Coaching Certification. He can be reached at


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