Home » Swimming » If You Can’t Swim In A Pool, You Can’t Swim In Open Water!

If You Can’t Swim In A Pool, You Can’t Swim In Open Water!

And even if you CAN swim in a pool, you may not be able to swim in open water. 

Read On.

“Twenty of the total 25 deaths associated with triathlons as recorded by USA Triathlon occurred during the swim portion of the events.”  Reported on 10/28/2008 by BeginnerTriathlete.com.

The best thing about Triathlon is that it is such an open community; always welcoming people to meet the goal of swimming, biking and running all in one race.  And I really truly believe that anyone can do a triathlon with the right training.  

Here’s the thing though: You have to know how to swim! 

This is something that has bothered me for quite a while now; how lightly people take the swim portion of a triathlon.   If you are going to attempt to race triathlon, it is of the utmost importance that you know how to swim.  I am not talking about leisure time in the shallow end of your backyard pool.  And for that matter, even if you can swim some laps in a pool…the open water is a far different kind of swim.  There are no sight lines, no places to stand, no places to push off from or ledges to hold onto.  It is you and the open water.   

Perhaps some of you are reading this scratching your head…”why would anyone enter a triathlon without knowing how to swim?”  You would be amazed.  I have seen numerous people pulled out of swims; in the ocean at Belmar there were at least a handful and even this past weekend their were four that came in from the water hanging on to the guard kayaks.  I actually had a guy say to me as he was hanging onto the kayak, “I don’t really know how to swim.”  I simply replied that I hoped before he entered another race he would learn.

Before I go on I should clarify what I mean by knowing how to swim.  I am not suggesting that everyone who enters a triathlon should know how to swim a perfect freestyle technique; I have seen plenty of people successfully complete the swim portion by swimming the breaststroke and/or backstroke.  You can even swim the freestyle with you head out of the water.  Whatever works to get you from one buoy to the next is fine.  However…and listen carefully…this is important-no matter which way you choose to swim, there is one thing you must be able to do-you need to be able to keep your head ABOVE the water.  At. All. Times.   

As a strong swimmer, even I have had times in the open water where I have to regroup…my goggles might have been kicked off, I might have swam off course or I simply may need to rest on my back for a moment…this happens to ALL swimmers at some point, regardless of their swim ability; but if you don’t have a swim ability to start out with, you could be in some serious trouble.  If you are a weak biker you can always stop or slow down and if you are a weak runner the same thing goes, you can always slow down and walk.  But if you can’t swim you could drown. 

The shortest races are usually 400 meters (1/4 mile) which may not seem like a lot, but for a weak swimmer can feel like eternity in the water.   And it is more complicated than just the distance; besides needing to physically be able to swim, one should also be psychologically prepared.  The swim portion of a tri is completed in the open water of a lake, bay or ocean (unless it is a pool swim, which is not common) and presents situations that cannot be simulated in a pool.  No matter how many hours/laps you put in at the local YMCA, it is never the same as open water swimming.   In addition to not having the luxury of a ledge to hold onto or ground to put your feet on, the water is typically unclear, usually cedar or salty and in most cases there is a current to work around.  Additionally, in open water you are contending with almost always cold, often dark and frequently deep waters.  Furthermore, depending on the location you also have the possibility to what lies beneath:  turtles, snakes, crabs, jellyfish…etc.  And lastly, since you never race alone, you also have to deal with all of the other swimmers in the water.  It is not uncommon to be kicked or hit in the swim; one must be able to withstand the possibility of being swum over or pulled under accidentally.   Even the most experienced swimmers could be dealt a blow to the head or suddenly have an unbearable cramp or come down with a severe case of vertigo.  This is why knowing how to swim is even more crucial for those who aren’t strong in the water. 

I urge people to go for it- go train for a triathlon and kick some major butt…but do it right.  Be safe about the sport.  If you are thinking about entering a race (or already have one coming up) and you are a weaker swimmer, I highly, highly recommend you practice in the open water.   And remember…never practice swimming in open water alone: the best bet is to find a place that holds open water swims that are lifeguarded, but if you don’t have that advantage, make sure to take someone along with you who also knows how to swim.   And if you have to question your ability, then you already know the answer.  There is no shame in not knowing how to swim but there is stupidity in not learning before TRI’ing. 

This is your life- you wouldn’t bungee jump without a rope, would you?

I’ll leave you with this picuture:

My first swim lesson: 10 months old

swimFuture Triathlete

11 thoughts on “If You Can’t Swim In A Pool, You Can’t Swim In Open Water!

  1. Oh, I am so sorry- I certainly don’t mean to scare anyone away! Triathlons are great and I think anyone who wants to do one should. I am just trying to spread awareness.

  2. Nice post. I agree. i have been swimming in the pool and feeling pretty strong. However, this weekend when I did an OWS it was completely different!

  3. I definitely need to start swimming, I don’t think I’ll be ready for a sprint tri any time soon now! I can swim (to save my life if I had to), but not for distance. I suppose baby steps is the way to go…I’ll start swimming laps in the pool with a friend and then with a class in the fall. Hopefully I can get one or two open water swims in before it gets too cold.

    Since you’re in NJ- do you have a favorite open water place to swim? I think you’re a little south than me, but I have no idea where to start!

  4. Kristin- email me @ jillyfly81 at comcast dot net. I will send you some links to open water swims. Most are done for the summer but keep your eyes peeled for them coming back in late Spring. There are a few in the shore towns closer to RU-NB which might be helpful to you. I live closer to RU-Cam and go to ones near me.

  5. And now you know why I don’t do triathlons. Yes, I know how to swim, but not for any distance and my confidence is such that I just don’t bother.

  6. Great post! The swim portion is exactly what holds me back from attempting one anytime soon. I need serious guidance in my flailing so that one day I can confidentally call it swimming. I can’t believe people actually attempt Tri’s with such a lack of experience/form/etc… Unbelievable and so tragic that it’s because of this stupidity that lives are lost.

  7. GREAT post! What I’ve often seen is people panicking in the water, being afraid of it… that fear is very familiar to me, but only when it comes to biking. But you are so right, you can fall off your bike, learn your lesson, and move on, and if you “fall” in swimming, uh, you are dead.

    That photo is just beyond adorable 🙂

  8. Excellent post. People really need to understand the swim portion of this race. I am a strong swimmer, but I hadn’t been swimming in a long time (in open water even longer) so I opted for triathlons with pool swims to start. Even in a pool swim, you have the other people to beware of, although there are ropes to hang onto if you need it.
    I plan to do an open-water triathlon next year and will make sure I have had some open-water practice beforehand. There’s a huge difference between the two.

  9. Pingback: Triathlon Etiquette- Some Advice For a Happier Race! « Finishing is Winning

  10. Pingback: Just Keep Swimming | Jillian Loves...

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