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Triathlon Training Minneapolis

Cold Water Swimming

The following originally appeared in the weekly newsletter prepared for the tri team I lead through Team in Training


There are few disciplines in the world of sport that evoke as wide a range of emotional experiences as open water swimming. To make sure your experience is that of tranquility and not terror, consider some of the following tips.

There are certain hazards specific to open water that do not exist in the pool. Follow the following safety tips to minimize risk:
– Always swim with a buddy. Check in every lap or two to make sure you are both accounted for and feeling good.
– Open water is not the time to pump up your ego and “tough it out.” If you are struggling, make your way to the shallows. If you get tired and are too far from shore to head in, rest on a buoy or by putting one hand on a support kayak. If you are really in trouble waive both hands over your head.
– Wear a neon cap. This is mandatory for TNT practices.

The start of some triathlons begin with 2,000+ swimmers leaving shore at the same time. Lifetime is not one of those races. A new swimmer is sent out every two seconds, spacing out the field. In Maui the field is small enough that a mass start isn’t too crazy. However, you will still have to deal with some traffic out on the swim course. Protect yourself by doing the following:
– Wear your goggles under your swim cap. If they are accidentally knocked off by another swimmer, your cap will keep them from floating away. This trick was put to the test for me in the summer of 2009 at an open water swim meet in Lake Superior. It worked.
– Be extra cautious when approaching slower swimmers. They may have a different idea than you as to what a straight line is.

First, the good news. McKarrons Lake (where we train) has no sharks, no jelly fish, no dead bodies (reference: Ironman Wisconsin 2009,, and, this early in the year, no seaweed. Essentially, the only environmental issue to deal with will be the temperature of the water. Help yourself stay warm by doing the following:
– Drink a warm beverage before you leave shore. Don’t fill your belly up; just sip a few ounces of coffee or tea to help bring up your core temperature.
– Wear two swim caps. It will help retain more heat that would otherwise escape from your head.
– While we all would like to enter the water like Pam and Hasslehoff, there is really no need. Start by walking in. The shock to your system will be less severe.
– Enter the water slowly, but don’t linger in the shallows. Walk quickly and start swimming as soon as the water is thigh deep. This will get your metabolism going and turn on that inner furnace.
– Always have warm dry clothes to change into immediately after exiting the water.

Cold water, nerves, and an aggressive pace at the start of most swims cause many to become short of breath.
– It is okay to enter the water begin with breast stroke before switching to front crawl.
– Exhale completely. Shallow breathing actually causes too much carbon dioxide to be retained in your lungs (as opposed to too little oxygen from not breathing in enough).
– The exception to my comment above about entering the water and swimming immediately is if you are in really cold water with a heart rate that goes through the roof. In that type of environment it is better to get in the water, submerge your face a few times, and blow some bubbles like the “bobs” we did at the first couple swim sessions. Do the bobs until your breath is regulated and you are ready to swim.

As a general rule most lakes do not have blue lines painted on the bottom to help keep you on course. Instead, there will be buoys spaced out approximately every 100 meters to keep you in line. To keep track of the buoys you must raise your head in an action commonly referred to as “sighting”.
– Look up every 5th stroke to start, working toward every 7th or 11th as you get better at holding to a straight line. Practice going straight in the pool to see how far off the line you are after swimming 5, 7 or 10 strokes with eyes closed.
– Don’t look for the buoy. Look beyond it. A rising sun in your line of sight or even the smallest of waves can make finding the buoys tough. Instead, look for a tall point on the horizon that is roughly in line with the buoy. This could be a house, bridge, or other structure on the far shore.
– Don’t follow the person in front of you. They are probably going the wrong way.

Like anything, practice make perfect. See you on the beach.

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