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I learned to swim in a lake where my family lived, in northern Wisconsin. My siblings and I trained summer workouts in open water since the nearest pool was a thirty minute drive and our back yard was more convenient. Due to this immersion, it did not seem strange when I competed in my first open water race in Seal Beach, California, in my late twenties. Open water swimming has been a never ending adventure. Some of my favorite memories are from swims; leaving from Catalina Island for the California mainland at 1 am on a windless moonlight night, watching the phosphorescence glow as my arm pulled through the water and fish darted below; swimming in tandem with my husband, Dave, silhouetted against the beautiful blue Caribbean water off the coast of St. Lucia. Other memories include the sense of fear before beginning a 42 kilometer race in Newport Vermont, which heads north up Lake Memphremagog towards Canada and a ‘foggy’ memory (due to mild hypothermia) of finishing in Calais, France after crossing the English Channel. There was also the exhilaration of conquering tough cold conditions or large waves and chop, swimming and finishing races despite mother natures’ indifference to my plight.

There is a freedom and challenge swimming in open water which just can’t be experienced in the pool. Are you ready?

How to begin?

OK, swimming in open water is your goal, where do you start? I will assume that you already know how to swim. If not, take some lessons, join a YMCA or a masters swimming team and learn the crawlstroke/freestyle.

There are a few things that you can do in the pool to prepare for swimming in open water; bilateral breathing, head lifting and stroke rate training.

First of all, breathing on both sides, or bilateral breathing, is a must. (I can hear the groans!!!) Let’s see if you are physically capable. Stand up and twist the upper half of your body to the right and then to the left. Then turn your head to the right and left. SCHEZAM!!! You can learn to breathe to both sides. Why is this necessary? Imagine or perform the following experiment. Find an open space about 400 yards long. Select a target and try to walk straight towards it EXCEPT close your eyes and turn your head, looking to the right every 2 steps. Sneak a look forward every 10 steps. Vision in the water will be even more restricted than this because you may or may not be able to see forward depending upon wave conditions, fog in your goggles or glare from the sun reflecting off of the water. This is also assuming strict concentration upon straight line swimming – not imagining that shadows are sharks and weeds are snakes- which will improve with practice.

Breathing on both sides accomplishes two main goals. It tends to “even out” your stroke so that you will naturally swim straighter. Ha, ha, you already KNOW how to swim straight, right? But that is in the pool. Think of the available cues, lane lines on the side and a black line on the bottom to guide your progress. Open water is much different. In addition to the lack of visual cues available in the pool, the water is colder, there might be some waves and the ‘pool length’ can be as long as a mile!

The second advantage to bilateral breathing is that it will allow you to see to the right and left. When swimming in the ocean, the usual course traverses down and back along the beach. If you only breathe to one side, half of your race will have NO visible cues toward the shore. Watching the shoreline is extremely helpful for straight swimming in the ocean.

Other advantages include being able to breath away from oncoming waves or fumes from boats during escorted swims.

Another skill to practice in the pool is lifting your head to see forward while swimming. The easiest way is to lift your head forward just before taking a breath to the side. I use the forward motion to look and then breathe to the side. Breathing head forward is not suggested since it requires too much energy to lift the head high enough for a breath and will cause slower swimming. Swim head up freestyle in the pool and see how difficult it is compared with head down swimming.

Try to get comfortable with this peek forward in the pool where it is relatively calm. It will be more difficult in open water, especially in the ocean.

How often is it necessary to look forward? That depends upon your straight line swimming ability coupled with and course conditions. Ideally, the less head lifting, the better, but swimming off course is also not advantageous. Initially, try only looking forward every 10 strokes (each arm counts as one).

Temperatures in open water are usually colder and may require a quicker stroke rate, -how much time it takes to complete your arm pull-. In open water, stroke rate is determined by counting once for each arm as it starts pulling through the water.

The rate is determined by counting each arm stroke for one minute (or counting for 30 seconds and multiplying by 2, or counting for 15 seconds and multiplying by 4). The best open water swimmers in the world have stroke rates between 70 and 90 strokes per minute, with women generally on the higher end of that scale. A faster stroke rate will assist in keeping a swimmer warmer in cold water. Have a friend time your rate in the pool. If it is under 60, you may want to work on increasing it to better handle colder temperatures.