Preparing For Your Open Water Race

How Do I Prepare For My Open Water Race?

Would you like to make your next open-water race experience as pleasant and successful as possible? Here is a way to maximize your chances of that…

1206 cirali owc

Here is summary of my advice for how to prepare for your next open-water race:

Practice like you race and race like you practice.

Or to put it another way: As far as possible for you, do not add any new element to your race that you have not been regularly including in your practice.

In order to safely match your high expectations for performance to reality very little should be a new experience to you on race day, other than the event itself. Everything you intend to do and and every piece of equipment or skill you intend to use in a race should be tested and experienced repeatedly in practice well before you use it in an actual race. This will minimize a host of negative things (Murphy’s Law!) that can go in unexpected directions on the day you’ve been training for. There are many things you cannot control about the race, about nature, or about other participants, but there is a great deal you can and should control, if you plan ahead of time.

Here is some quick, simple advice I might give:

No new goggles or swimsuit. Wear what you normally wear in practice.
No new food types. Eat what you normally eat before practice.
No faster-than-normal Tempo. Swim in the patterns you’ve trained for.

Here is a sampling of more details a swimmer should think through:

If a race conditions include:

  • Open-water – train in open-water as often as possible.
  • Salt water – practice in salt water*.
  • Cold/hot water and weather – train in colder/cooler water and weather.
  • Rough water – train in rougher water.
  • Murky water – train in murky water.
  • Currents – train in currents.
  • Long distance – train at longer distances.
  • Rain or wind – train in the rain and wind.

* Salt burns the mouth and chaffs between rubbing skin after a short while without protection.

If course design includes:

  • Tight crowd at start – practice starts in a crowd of swimmers.
  • Unusual start or exit from water – practice those starts and exits.
  • Buoy turns – practice sighting, aiming and executing those turns.

If the race imposes ___X___ upon my body or mind:

  • Lack of sleep the night before- train on a lack of sleep often enough to be used to it.
  • Early morning start – practice in early mornings.
  • Crowded/Isolated conditions – practice swimming in crowded/isolated conditions.
  • Longer-than-usual mental endurance – practice longer-than-usual attention and self-entertainment.

If the race requires equipment such as:

  • Wetsuit – train in your wetsuit as much as possible.
  • Special racing suit – train in your special racing suit.
  • Special goggles – practice with those special goggles.
  • Personal swim buoy or person-rescue device – train while having those attached to your body.

And, I must say, if you plan to be in the water more than an hour, you should practice peeing on the go or at a floating rest. Yes, it is a regular part of open-water swimming! The fish do it, so can you. This too is a skill that needs to be practiced.


Salt water or fresh, murky or incredibly clear water, long distance, a tight crowd of competitors, wetsuit (or no wetsuit), feeding stations, water from a kayak, turns, sighting to buoys or landmarks, bad weather, early morning start (or late) – NONE of those features, or as few as possible, should be a new experience for you on race day. It will be challenging enough that you will be faced with several of them at the same time. But, as a responsible competitor you need to make every effort to expose yourself to and become completely familiar with the conditions you will race in before you race in them. Don’t burden yourself, your fellow competitors, or the race staff by coming to the race unprepared for it.

Really, you want to make the any conditions the race may present you with as routine as possible – almost anti-climactic. Novices expect to be swept up by an adrenaline rush, experts save it for strategic moments.

If your open-water race is meant to be your first exposure to certain conditions (either you can’t or don’t bother to expose yourself to those challenges before the race) then I recommend that you change your orientation from one of ‘racing’ to one of ‘exploring’ or ‘experimenting’. Go to the race, not to get a certain time result, but to simply gather information and experience. If Murphy, for some strange reason, doesn’t show up to impose trying circumstances you may be pleasantly surprised by a better-than-expected finish, but let that be the icing on the cake of keeping and open-mind and attitude in a very new and likely challenging experience.

But if you are taking open-water racing seriously you need to prepare for it seriously.

The mantra drilled into my ethos as a woodsman by my uncle (and very thorough civil engineer) who trained me in deep woods skills and survival: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. This means thinking through the worst (reasonably) possible scenarios and training in the specific skills to handle those. When the challenging scenario shows up, there may be a lot of disorienting chemicals surging through the brain but the skills will already be present in the neurons and ready to serve you as habits. There are no short-cuts to building those ingrained emergency and high-performance skills.

Keep in mind that pool swimming is more like a cousin to open-water swimming rather than a sister. Swimming 10k, 3k, or just 1k in a pool is not the same as swimming in open-water – they are similar only in the fact that you are in liquid and you are moving your body in the same mechanical patterns. But so much is different when in open water that pool training alone cannot be safely regarded as adequate preparation for open-water racing, unless one is already an experienced open-water swimmer in the conditions he/she will actually race in. Even an ‘experienced’ open-water swimmer who is familiar only with certain race distance under controlled conditions (like a closed, well-marked course) should be cautious and careful about jumping into new distances and more uncontrolled conditions.

My intention is not to discourage you from signing up for a racing goal, but encourage you to prepare responsibly for it. It is not just a matter of safety, it is a matter of maximizing enjoyment in the experience itself which will make you want to do it again, and to go farther.


Some may also want to read my series on Overcoming Fear In Open-Water.


6 responses to “Preparing For Your Open Water Race

  1. Thanks.😊 I’m agree with you.😊 Thanks God will be with you, all the time.

  2. Hi Mat, Many thanks for your highly valuable articles. I immensely benefitted from your article on 2beat kick. I learnt swimming about a year back, and am following TI methods for the last eight months. I regularly practise about 1 to 1.5k in my pool. Now there is a open water competition coming up ( open sea , Goa, India) end of this month and I dream to compete and complete in the 5K category. In you this post, you are suggesting we should practise in the same environment as the race event. I fully agree, but unfortunately for me it is not possible for more than one reason. Given this scenario: a) what would be your advice for me. All of the things you mentioned is true for me: salt water, murky water, possibly rough and long distance b) Do you have concerns that it might not be safe ( life threatening) for me to venture to the sea on the competition day with out practising in sea earlier ?
    Many thanks
    Best Regards

    • Hi Sam, Thanks for asking. It’s a good question.

      I cannot judge your mental fitness for swimming in those conditions for the first time. But you need to do all you can to test yourself on each of those conditions if at all possible. Even if those things don’t threaten to provoke a deadly panic, you want that swim to be as pleasant as possible. So, any way you can find or make ways to simulate any of those race conditions you have a chance to gain some mental familiarity and prepare yourself to not get too stressed by them on race day.

      One that you could and should expose yourself to is to experience the total 5k distance in a single swim. If at least you know your metabolism and muscles can handle 5k (2 hours or so) of continuous swimming you can at least be at peace about that potential threat. Then you know you won’t die from the distance! And, you might be able to get in the pool when it is really busy and waves splashing your face all the time, swim for an hour or so to get used to skipping breaths, and keeping a good attitude when wild water does not cooperate with your breathing patterns.

      And, if that water is going to be cooler than comfortable, you should really get practice being in cooler water for an hour or two. Even take cold showers (as cold as you can get in Goa!) to just reduce your sense of stress with having your skin get cold.

      For murky water – well, swim with your eyes closed sometimes. Or practice counting and focal point games you will play in your head and plan out focal points you will use for XX number of strokes so that you have something to focus your mind on when you face sensory deprivation in the murky water for 2 hours.

      Think through the details and come up with creative ways to simulate each kind of stress you might face.

      May it go well, and be a great learning and confidence building experience!

  3. Thank you very much Mat!!!
    Another question I had: regarding spear switch drill. Though this page is not for that topic, I am posting here as a continuation of the previous query. Please pardon me for that.
    A) I tried to practise spear switch drill. I do this along with two beat kick instead of flutter. When I switch, I don’t see any forward propulsion in my body due to the switch or kick. I do see a propulsion due to the pull action of my lead arm. I really don’t know what I am missing.
    B) While practising the two beat kick as you mentioned, my opposite shoulder does gets pressed inside water. However, I am an able to see that it was consequent to the kick action. Not sure whether I am doing it correctly. My pool does not permit to take videos .. otherwise, I could have shown the videos of my drill practise.

    • Hi Sam,

      Keep in mind that drills have limited utility. Arranged in a certain way (since we can use one drill for different purposes, when arranged another way) a drill will allow us to ‘slow down time’ and ‘focus more easily’ on a certain part of the stroke. It usually will not achieve the full range of effects and sensations of the whole stroke, but only one specific part of it.

      In the case of using Spear Switch, as you describe, it’s purpose is to help you establish switch timing (the position that spearing hand should be when initiating the switch of arms). And, as you have been doing, it can be used also to help feel the timing of the kick. But, without repetitive strokes to create momentum, you are pushing against the inertia of still water and you won’t go anywhere really. The purpose of this drill in this case is to become sensitive to timing, not for creating propulsion. If that happens or not is not important. The underwater switch in Spear Switch situation creates a lot of drag so it works against most of the forward propulsion the gentle catch and gentle kick create. And if you try to abruptly pull and/or abruptly kick in this drill to create some satisfying movement, then you may actually start working against the greater benefits of this drill – timing and steady, smooth pressure (of catch and kick).

      In the case of examining 2BK’s role in rotation, at moderate to low tempos (1.30 and slower) the weight of the recovery arm swinging above the surface of the water should be the initiator of rotation – when it reaches entry position gravity does the job of initiating the rotation when you release the arm to slide down (and then forward) into the water. Then a micro-second later the kick starts in order to finish the extension of the body. Don’t think of the kick as helping you rotate, think of it as helping you lengthen or extend farther forward. That will change the way you view the timing. You need to kick in the second half of your entry/extension phase, not the first part. If you use the kick to start the rotation, then you may not be actually tapping into the mass momentum of the torso.

      Try those thoughts…

      PS – to stay updated on my blog posts, view at I transferred all my blog posts to that site and keep adding there, while this site has been discontinued since August 2014.

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