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  • Writer's pictureScott Wrigley

Essential Skills for Open Water Swimming Part 1

Train these open-water skills to reap the benefits of your pool training in the open water.

By Scott Wrigley, MSc, CSCS, CPT, FNS, PN1, USAT Level 1 Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, US Masters Swimming Level 2 Coach

Overall, the pool is excellent for open-water training. It is a controlled environment where you can hone your technique and focus on training specific energy systems using a pace clock or training watch.

The pool is also great for camaraderie. Joining a Masters swim team or a Tri Club can make the hours spent staring at the black line more enjoyable and help push you more than training by yourself.

Image courtesy of Wix

However, it's not as simple as just showing up to race day and swimming. To successfully transfer the technique and fitness earned in the pool to open water, athletes must practice race day scenarios and develop skills specific to open-water swimming. These include:

  • Mass starts

  • Bilateral breathing

  • Sighting

  • Buoy turns

  • Drafting

  • Dolphin Dives

In part 1, I discuss mass starts and bilateral breathing. In part 2, I cover sighting and buoy turns. In the final installment, part 3, I examine the advanced skills of drafting and dolphin dives.

Mass starts

A large portion of open-water swimming and triathlon races are mass starts. This means that the entire race starts as one, or at bigger races where that is not possible, typically, entire age groups start as one. In this scenario, you swim in close proximity to other athletes, at least for a portion of the swim, until the pack spreads out (typically after the first buoy).

It is not uncommon for athletes to get hit, kicked, have their goggles knocked off, or even be swum over in mass starts. As is, moving from the pool to open water swimming can be a nerve-wracking scenario for many athletes. When you add in the potential of getting knocked around and swum over, you have nightmare fuel. However, with the right tactics and training, you can be prepared and confident to tackle a mass start.

Mass Start Tactics

While not eliminating the possibility of getting knocked around, the right tactics will improve your chances of a smooth swim. These include goggle placement, self-seeding, and taking the outside line.


When preparing to swim, put your goggles on under your swim cap. This minimizes the overall surface area of your goggles available to get snagged by an errant hand or foot, significantly decreasing the chance of your goggles getting knocked off during the swim.


In open water swimming, similar to a running race, athletes self-seed with faster athletes at the front of the pack. Talk to the other athletes in your heat when lining up to swim. Take that time to get a sense of what times other athletes are swimming, and then position yourself to start around athletes near your ability. This decreases the potential of being swum over as the significantly faster athletes will now be in front of you. Additionally, seeding yourself correctly can set you up to PR the swim (I discuss this in more detail in the drafting section of part 3).

Take the outside line:

If you are highly uncomfortable with the prospect of being knocked around in the swim, you can take the outside line by starting at the side of the pack. At the start of the swim, most athletes funnel together like lemmings into the middle, with fewer athletes on the sides. Thus, starting at the pack's side, there is more space to swim and a less turbulent environment.

One caveat: unless you are a front-of-the-pack swimmer, pick the side away from the first buoy. All athletes are attempting to b-line straight for that first buoy. If you pick the side closest to the buoy, you can end up in a similar position to being in the middle of the pack at the start of the swim, potentially getting knocked around and swum over in a traffic jam at the buoy.

Mass Start Training

While the tactics above are great to help you navigate a mass start swim more comfortably, they don't guarantee a smooth swim. When you throw the human element into any scenario, certainty goes out the window. As Murphy's Law states: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." So instead of hoping for the best, I have athletes train for the worst. In doing so, you will gain confidence in your ability to successfully navigate a mass start and swim your best.

So, what does mass start training involve? Getting comfortable with the dreaded scenarios above: having your goggles knocked off and contact with other athletes while swimming. To train these scenarios, all you need is a body of water (pool or open water) and at least one other swimmer.

Goggles knocked off:

To train this scenario, you want to put your goggles on the outside of your swim cap. Yes, this is counter to what you will do on race day (putting your goggles on under your swim cap) but is necessary for yourself or your training partner to easily access your goggles.

With a partner: have your training partner stand in approximately waist-deep water ten feet or so in front of you. Then you slowly swim by your partner they partially pull off your goggles. The object isn't to pull them all the way off but to partially remove them so that the seal breaks and water enters your goggles.

Image by Ashley de Lotz courtesy of Unsplash

You can also train this scenario alone. Start off swimming normally, keeping your head down in the ideal position (more on the ideal head position here). With your face in the water, use one hand to break the seal on your goggles.

To recover from this scenario, you want to flip onto your back as if you are going to transition into the backstroke (similar to the corkscrew buoy turn which can be found in part 2). Increase your kick slightly to maintain position on top of the water and keep some forward progress. While on your back, empty any water from your goggles and put them back into position. Then, flip back over and resume your swim.

Contact with other athletes:

Ideally, to train this scenario you have two other swimmers, though one will work. All athletes start next to each other in the water and on a decided signal, all athletes start swimming at the same time. Swim in as close of proximity as you can, purposefully entering each other's space and bumping into each other. This will increase your confidence and comfort to continue swimming come race day if (really when) another swimmer hits, kicks, or bumps into you.

The move from the pool to open water in itself can be unnerving with the potentially murky water and no black line to guide you. Add in a mass start, and some athletes' anxiety understandably increases. However, with the tactics and training outlined above, you can confidently and comfortably conquer the mass start.

Bilateral breathing

Just like being right or left-handed, swimmers tend to have a preferred side for breathing. In the controlled environment of the pool, this tendency can be overlooked. However, for open-water swimming, it is essential to develop the skill of bilateral breathing.

Out in the open water you are at the mercy of nature. In larger bodies of water, even under calm conditions, this includes waves. If the swim course is planned so that athletes swim parallel to the shore, the waves may come from either your right or left side depending on the design of the course. The side that faces away from the shore has to contend with waves.

Image courtesy of Wix

If you can only breathe to the non-shore side you are at risk of getting a lung full of water from a wave in the face as you rotate to breathe. Not only can this be an impediment to your race as you stop to cough and catch your breath, but it can be dangerous.

You also have "man-made" obstructions to breathing to deal with in open water swimming. As I discuss above, a large portion of open-water swimming and triathlon races are mass starts. In this scenario, at least for a portion of the swim until the pack spreads out, you swim in close proximity to other athletes. The water turbulence created by other swimmers in such close proximity can inhibit breathing. Similar to the wave scenario, unless you are able to switch to the other side to breathe, this could result in you inhaling water.

Image by Mario La Pergola courtesy of Unsplash

Practicing bilateral breathing in the pool will ensure that your breathing is not interrupted due to either natural (waves) or man-made obstructions (turbulence) on race day and set you up for your best potential swim.

The Takeaway

The pool is an excellent environment for honing your swim technique and emphasizing specific energy systems. However, prior to race day athletes must also train for specific open-water scenarios and skills. If you train for mass starts and bilateral breathing as described above you will be confident and comfortable come race day.

In part 2 I discuss the skills of sighting and buoy turns.

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