Being a Newbie to Open Water Swimming

Competitors in the Swim for Alligator Lighthouse, an open-water, long-distance event, cross the start line Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Islamorada, Fla., head to Alligator Reef Lighthouse, four miles off the Florida Keys. After rounding the lighthouse they swim back to shore. The event began in 2013 to help raise awareness to preserve the almost 150-year-old lighthouse as well as five other lighthouses off the Keys. This year’s contest has attracted 461 swimmers. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)

Being a Newbie to Open Water Swimming

By Annika Hobson, Swimming World College Intern

About to run headfirst into your first open water race? Don’t know how to transition from the pool to the ocean or a lake? Let my firsthand experience and lessons learned guide you. This summer, I trained for and competed in my first open water race. I learned about the fun of racing in a new element, but it can also be daunting if you are not prepared.

My Experience

Sierra Nevada Masters Swimming held the 40th anniversary Donner Lake Swim in Truckee, CA on Aug. 14. The 450-swimmer event completely sold out. The uniqueness of this open water event is that the race is 2.7 miles directly across the lake. Growing up next to Truckee, I have swum in Donner Lake many times before, but this race was my first open water competition. Being a distance swimmer, I was prepared for the length, but open water swimming calls for some different techniques.

Race-Day Preparations

Every swimmer knows their pre-race routines backward and forward. From getting plenty of sleep to eating a hardy breakfast, swimmers know how to prepare their bodies for big races. But switching from the pool to open water races calls for some different ways to prepare for race day. Something I wish I had done for my race was get in the water before the race to warm up. Warmup for open water races helps a swimmer get ready to pace their race. It also helps swimmers get used to the water’s temperature. Whether the water is too warm or too chilly, it is nice to be prepared for what you are about to run or dive into at the start of the race.

The Start

Unlike the organized start off the blocks into a pool, an open water race begins with limbs flying. After the starting signal, swimmers run and push and shove to get into the water. Once the swimmers enter the water, there is a sea of legs and arms churning up bubbles. Eventually the field spreads out, but the start of an open water race makes open water swimming a contact sport.


Another fun aspect of open water swimming is the swimmers can draft off one another. Most people know what drafting is from car races or from bicycle races, but it can also be a smart racing strategy in swimming. To draft on another swimmer, you can either hop in behind their feet or swim off to the side of their hip. In both methods, the drafting swimmer enters the draft zone and swims faster. When given the opportunity, take advantage of drafting by matching the speed of the swimmer being drafted and stay within the draft zone.


A key feature of open water swimming is sighting. Sighting is when a swimmer sticks their head up to see where they are going in an open water race. Sighting helps swimmers to stay on course and follow their line (race plan). The courses of open water races vary from place to place, but one thing is for sure, there are no distinct lane lines. Therefore, for a swimmer to know where they should be going, they need to sight in between normal stroke cycles. When sighting, a swimmer may be looking for bright buoys, a finish line, geographical features, or more to swim the course efficiently.

A way to practice sighting is to take the lane lines out of a pool and set up three buoys as a racecourse. The course does not even need to be particularly big, just enough space to go around the buoys. Swimmers can then practice sighting by looking up between strokes to see the buoys. This practice can also help teach swimmers about choosing tight lines to swim, so they do not add extra yardage to their races.

The Finish

Open water swims feature many close and exciting races. There are two different ways open water swims can conclude, with floating touch pads or running. In the first setup, swimmers race to slap a floating touch pad with their hands to calculate their time. The other type of finish has swimmers run out of the water to cross a finish line. Whether it’s a full swimming finish or a finish that requires the swimmers to run, open water swims have close results.

As a competitive swimmer of nine years, I am glad that I decided to dive into the world of open water swimming. Open water swims are a fun way to create new ways to compete. I look forward to signing up for some more open water swims in the future. Will you be trying out open water swimming soon?

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.