Jodie Swallow, one of the best triathletes on the circuit, and a swimming sensation, shares her thoughts on how to become a successful open water swimmer.

I was always one of those pool swimmers who could handle open water. Being smaller than the average international swimmer meant I had to learn to use a higher cadence in the pool to compensate for the lack of power that stronger females could harness. I was unwittingly learning my triathlon trade even back then. 

It isn’t an absolute correlation that speed in the pool equals speed in the sea. Open water (OW) is to pool swimming; what mountain biking is to road racing; what Xterra is to triathlon; what cross country is to athletics.

Here is how to consistently convert success in a ‘closed’ training pool into nailing the swim in an ‘open’ race arena. I can tell you which is more fun!


1. Walls

The biggest difference between OW swimming and pool swimming is very obvious – turns.

Turns, a skill in themselves, break distance actually ‘swum’. At each turn, the arms ‘rest’ in the streamline glide whilst the legs take the work for a few seconds. In OW the arms have to be in constant action. Rhythm of cadence and balance can therefore play a greater role in the open water.

Turns momentarily rest muscle groups but they also offer, at the same time, an opportunity for the brain to reset and refocus. In a pool you know where you are and how far you have left. Subsequently you can monitor your pacing. In the OW you are largely in the dark on distance and pacing.

For me, a twenty minute swim in the sea can feel like an hour if I don’t time it. The course distance will always be consistent but if you don’t master what ‘race pace’ feels throughout all sections of the distance you are liable to overcook or undercook the swim.

You must train the body to swim at certain paces – how that feels and what effort to rev at.

In the pool – use the pace clock all the time. Then, make sure you swim in open water regularly and convert that pace into a long effort. Pacing is a skill but, with regular practice can become second nature.


2. Physicality

In age group triathlon, you fast ladies are going to be starting with the men; fast men and slow men. Gender shouldn’t really come into it here – because I often see ladies leading out OW swims in triathlons. What is relevant – is that men, in general, are bigger than women. There is a tendency for men to go out too fast and swim with a little more ‘abandonment’, shall we say.

If you get clobbered there are two things to remember:

a) Revenge is futile (it wasn’t on purpose – he was just a moron)

b) That you can fight for territory with less brawn and more brain. Stick to your line. Be fierce and purposeful. Use your agility and swim skill to dodge arms and bodies and move away from liabilities in the water.

In terms of starting speed, do all you can to stick with them but be aware that they will fade after 400 metres. Attack then. You will see that passing faders and adopting the open space they leave is easy and motivating for the rest of the leg. Chase those boys.


3. The Gun

Unisex waves do present a bit of a dilemma with starting. Men, in general, push forward. They have testosterone. Position yourself in the field where you know you will finish. If you have a fast swim time – get to the front and be hard arse about it.

Maintain your position with your elbows. Kick intruders lightly. If all else fails – tell them. Ask them not to hit you – they would have to be a real c**k to hit a lady after she had ascertained she was one wouldn’t he? You would think.

In a beach start – don’t panic. There will be some surf/sprint/Baywatch practiced Adonis who traverses the waves like Moses. There will only be a few, and the water is close. Maintain your space like at the start of a cross country race and again be assured the field will come back to you once the swimming begins and ‘the hormones’ have imploded.

IMmelb2015 (c) Witsup

4. The Elements

Imagine a cross country runner; muscular, fiery, alert and muddy. Now imagine a track runner; svelte, controlled, measured and pristine. Throw away your spikes and grab your trail shoes. OW swimming is messy.

Waves, weather, sun, wind, currents, chop, boats, athletes, helicopters, seaweed, spray, temperature… These are just a few of the things you are subject to in the sea. Compare that to a pool where there is: water and walls.

You have to react. If your stroke is getting chopped by waves then you must chop it, if there is swell behind you then you must glide with it. The only factors that can help you here are experience, clear thinking and focus. Ladies, use your brain as a third arm. It will make a huge difference to your swim time in the OW.


5. Resilience

Sometimes resilience is the biggest factor in my successful swims. In some of my breakaway swims I have literally felt like I am trying to swim into the eye of a storm.

Battle with all the resources that you have and have faith that strength and work shines through. Be positive. In the blur of a swim field, raucous pacing and the melee of the elements, training will be the one thing you can rely on.


6. Goggles

A simple one. I get this one wrong all the time.

New goggles can fog and old goggles can fog. I have come to the conclusion it is as much to do with the shape of your face as it is the goggle type, lens type or temperature.

Anti-fog is unreliable in my experience.

If push came to shove and I had to pick one pair of goggles for any condition I would pick a tinted dark pair that is two weeks old. Two weeks – to know that they are new enough not to be scratched but old enough to have been tested in the water. Tinted – covers sunny or cloudy conditions. I have been known too to throw off goggles in bad conditions if I have selected the wrong pair. You can see buoys without them – just not much else.


7. Drafting

Drafting in OW can definitely help you but you have to choose the right person to draft. In general, as a fast age group lady, you will spend a lot of the first half of the race catching and passing men. You don’t want to sit behind slowing people so you must master the art of chasing. Be aware of “late surgers” beside you or coming from behind. Those individuals can draft you up the field far quicker than swimming alone can. Us ladies have the advantage of sitting on mens’ feet in training – practice it. There is no better explanation of how much easier, mind and body wise, drafting is. If you are jostling someone who is swimming the same speed as you – let them go in front. Use them, then accelerate past later. You save energy and time. Be savvy. Be smart.


8.  Wetsuit

Most OW swims nowadays are in a wetsuit. Don’t get me started – they just are. You must get used to your wetsuit so that you like to swim in it for long periods. I hate hanging around in my wetsuit – it feels constricting and seal like – but in the water it feels like silk. I would go a size smaller than the measurements they prescribe on the sites – especially if you are an athletic female. They aways match the hip size with the shoulder/rib width and it fills up for us ‘Warrior Princess’ shapes. Water around your back and hips is not desirable.

Pull the suit up – the only time in your life you will actively attempt to get ‘a camel toe.’ Then, pull each leg up back and front. I cut my legs off below the knee – not for kick extension as reported – but for ease of removal in T1. Again, pull the arms on as if you were pulling tights up. Then grab the midsection and pull that skyward to. Your second skin.


9.  Waves, Swell, Current and Chop

Waves are usually near the shore and present difficulties on exit and entry to the water. They are quite easy to judge and duck dive/dive through.

Swell is a larger movement of water, deeper in the ocean. It moves you up and down, more subtly than waves do and can unbalance your pull and disrupt your rhythm. ‘Mission’ through the feeling and keep moving – like a metronome (checking your direction). If swell sweeps you up – it will also sweep you down – this can actually help to move you quicker.

Current is like ‘wind in the water,’ use it as such – determined, strong, pulling against it; flowing, slower arm cadence with it.

When there are cross currents it is often tricky to anticipate the direction toward a buoy. Sighting is key here –  be aware that others will get it very wrong, so use experience.

Chop is my favourite and just makes everything harder. It sorts the women from the girls. Keep fighting forward is the best way.


10.  Attitude

My most important point. OW swimming is about attitude. The sea will reward its loyal patrons so; have fun in open water; spend time in the waves and respect its force in day to day life.

If you believe you are a water baby – you will become one. If you hate the unpredictability of the sea it will overwhelm you with every change.

Relish challenge, play with the water and feel at home. It will help you to read situations and respond to them far quicker. Even I can freak myself out if I begin to think about sharks, choking, storms, riptides and boats – worrying never overcame anything. The threats stay the same if you worry or not. My attitude is – that the faster you swim the less time you are in there and the less time they get to bite you.

Only joking. ‘There are no sharks where you are racing’ – The OW motto.


Live life, swim fast.

Jodie x


Lead photo by Challenge Bahrain / Getty Images

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7 Responses

  1. Kent

    This is the best set of ideas and advice I’ve seen on open water swimming in a long time. Well done.

  2. Stuart

    with only three weeks to my first tri with sea swim at mallorca 70.3 this article couldn’t be better timed. Great writing! Great advice!

  3. Anna

    Thanks so much! This was amazingly helpful, and I really appreciate having some female-specific advice too! :)

  4. Lucie

    Brilliant article Jodie, big thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to get out in the open water!


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