It’s easy to fall foul of the terrors of open water triathlon swimming – here’s how to avoid them.

Avoid these key mistakes to get out the water faster than ever (Photo: A. Hurrell)

Open-water swimming is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of a triathlon. It’s certainly what people seem to worry about the most before an event. Let’s be honest, it’s understandable – after all, there are plenty of things to worry about when you’re swimming in cold dark water, surrounded by hundreds of kicking feet and flying fists. It needn’t be so stressful though.

As long as you avoid the most common open-water swim mistakes, you should be just fine. We’ve listed the main ones below, along with some advice to help you overcome them.

And, thanks to Twitter, we’ve also got to read about some of the mistakes our readers have made in the past. Some of them might prove useful, while others are just plain funny.

This problem occurs as soon as you put your face in cold open water at the beginning of a race. Your body craves oxygen but is unaccustomed to the temperature, so your chest tightens and leaves you struggling for breath.

Your wetsuit collar suddenly feels too tight and you need to stop and get your breath back while everyone passes you by. This costs you time and it can leave you with a fear of open-water swimming.

Get in the water 10 minutes before you start. Swim hard until you get used to the water temperature. If you can’t fit in a warm-up keep dunking your head underwater and splash your face. Then start the race at a realistic pace that you can maintain throughout.

The problem with open-water swimming is that you can’t always see where you’re going. There are no coloured tiles on riverbeds, or distance flags in lakes. It’s easy to zigzag your way along, unwittingly swimming hundreds of metres further than you need to.

Choose your goggles carefully. Go for ones that are fairly new so the straps are less likely to break and they don’t steam up, but avoid trying anything brand new. Make sure they’re leak-proof and that the tint of the goggles matches the race day conditions. You should also practise sighting in the water. This means training in open water, using tall, fixed objects such as buildings, trees and bridges to give you a clear sense of your direction.

If you start too near the front you’ll get swallowed up, swum over, kicked and bumped by all the faster swimmers overtaking you. If you start too near the back you’ll get obstructed by all the slower swimmers, so you’ll end up bashing into them and losing time in the process.

Time yourself over your race distance in a pool, and then compare it with last year’s race results to get an idea of your seeding on race day. Just bear in mind that the buoyancy of your wetsuit might help you to swim a minute or two faster per 1500m compared with swimming in a pool. The other option is to start from the side of the main group, so that by the time you get to the first turn-buoy everyone is nicely strung out and keeping their distance.

> We asked our Twitter followers (@TriathlonPlus) to reveal their open-water swim mistakes

“I left my wedding ring on during my first open-water swim. It was about 13˚, so my fingers shrank and the ring fell off. Luckily I have a very understanding wife!”

“I swam to the wrong buoy, adding 100m to the swim. I was eventually told by a canoeist who hit me
on the head with his paddle!”

“Not wearing the right wetsuit. I bought a cheap surfing one and my shoulders wore out very quickly. I’ve got a nice BlueSeventy now.”

“Waiting until the last minute to get in, and not being able to catch my breath. And following the feet in front, which were about 50m off track.”

“While on holiday I was sighting using a boat as a reference point. It took a while before I realised it was moving.”

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more triathlon training advice in’s Training Zone section.

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