For beginner and experienced triathletes alike, swimming in open water can be a challenge. But only to get swim fit and ready in a pool does not mean you are ready for open water. What makes open water swimming special? What are the important differences and what do you have to keep in mind?
You are swimming in the sea or in a lake, the water is uneasy and the waves are coming to your left side, hitting you in your face and make it difficult to breathe in. If you are not able to change your side of breathing, it will be very difficult to keep a steady rhythm. So take your time for breathing and make sure bilateral breathing starts to feel natural for you, too.
Apart from breathing technique, orientation plays a really important role. When you are swimming in the pool you do not really have to think about where you are. There is a swim lane with a line, the water is clear, you can see the ground, the sides and the wall of the pool. In open water it looks very different and it is very simple to lose your way: There is no line, the water is muddy, maybe wavy, it is dark when you are looking down and you are not able to see the ground. So it is important that you have your points of reference which can help you to find your way straight ahead without losing too much time. In competitions there are normally buoys otherwise you have to look for landmarks at the shore (buildings, church tower, lighthouse, mountain peak etc.). To know where the landmarks are you have to lift up your head and look ahead. The difficulty is here that you have to leave your optimal water-position for every 3 / 5 stroke behind and your kick has to be stronger (so you won’t lose too much pace). Yes, that is a different process and you have to involve it in your normal training.
Next important factor is natural environment. Weather conditions (sun, wind, rain), smooth or wavy water, water temperature (cold / warm water) and water type (crystal clear or dark reservoir) can affect your training. It can be more exhausting, your body has to work harder to keep your body warm, heavy sea or strong wind can make it difficult to see the landmark and you have to lift up your head higher. In this case try to use the swell for your own benefit, breathing and looking at the shoreline will help to save your strength. Just be aware to be in control of water, it makes no sense to fight or force against it, this is a fight you cannot win.
It is obvious that you cannot take your performance from the pool directly into open water training. But do not worry. We can tell you, if you have the chance to train in open water, just do it as often and regularly as you can. It is a perfect training for your body, you will get used to it and stay clear in mind (important especially in difficult situations).