Coaching, Training, Camps.

Conquering the Open Water Swim
Coach Sarah Portella

One hundred meters into the race it happens. You panic. Every single technique you practiced goes right out the window. It is as if you’ve never been to the pool in your life, never mind swim countless yards in preparation. An unwelcome thought that you might just drown creeps in as you fight to flip over onto your back. Where is the swim exit?!

Although some might not admit it, this exact scenario has happened to a lot of triathletes early on in their swim, bike, run debuts. The fear of open water is real, and even the best swimmers can be intimidated by it. The good news is that open water swimming doesn’t have to be scary. With practice and a good mental strategy, you can get out there and conquer the swim.

Here are a few techniques that I have found helpful when working with athletes in preparation for open water swimming.

  1. Practice Makes Perfect. I encourage all of my athletes to find an open water venue and get out there and swim as frequently as they can. One of the best ways to get over your fear is to face it head on. The more you do it, the more comfortable you become with it. You need to get used:
    • Not being able to see the bottom
    • The feeling of waves and adjusting your swim stroke
    • The ability to sight
  2. Swim with People. If you can’t get to an open water area to swim the next best place is the pool. Share a lane with other swimmers to mimic the closeness of other athletes you’ll experience during the race. As a bonus you’ll have to pay attention to where you are in the lane. This can also be a great opportunity to practice sighting.
  3. Practice your Breathing. By being able to get your breathing under control you can reduce your risk of panic. Practice breathing every 3rd, 4th and 5th If you feel out of control, flip onto your back and relax. When you are calm, flip back over and practice breathing every 2nd stroke. While not as efficient, it gives you the chance to get a breath more quickly. Varying your breathing patterns gives you the ability to recover if you get splashed in the face during a swim.
  4. Be Mentally Prepared. Having a strategy on race day can take you to the start line with confidence. If you have practiced all of the techniques above, you know you can complete the swim. Remind yourself that you are prepared and have a plan in case you panic (i.e. flip over on your back, regain control, and then breath every 2nd stroke).

Open water swimming can be fun and enjoyable. With practice and good strategy, you can love the first part of your triathlon just as much as the bike and run!

If you would like more information about working with Coach Sarah Portella, she can be reached at