10 Open Water Swim Tips & Etiquette

Courtesy of Kirsten Read

As the sport of Open Water Swimming becomes more and more popular, here are some helpful safety and etiquette tips:

1. Safety

There are inherent risks to our sport, especially in extremely warm or cold water. Do not swim if you are not up to it for any reason — your body may be telling you something. And for those who do choose to swim, watch out for others who may be in trouble. If you are out practicing with a group, devise plan beforehand to keep everyone accounted for. Try to swim with a buddy who is approximately your speed. Have faster swimmers double back and meet slower ones — and encourage everyone to wear an open water safety buoy around their waist. These are also dry bags so you can always keep a phone with you in case of emergency.

2. Wetsuits

Be aware that compression can exacerbate risks of swimming-induced pulmonary edema (SIPE). Caffeine and energy drinks can also contribute to SIPE.

3. Sudden Immersion

If you haven’t been swimming in cold water and the water temperature is below 60 degrees F there is a rare, but real, danger of death. To be safe, always splash your face and neck with water first, thus alerting your system about what is about to happen. Then gradually enter the water.

4. Mass Confusion

The mass start of a race is almost always anxiety-producing. If you are a medium or slower swimmer, do not place yourself in the middle or front of the pack or in the fastest wave. You will only get in the way of faster swimmers and cause them, and yourself, undue stress.

5. Newbies

If this is your first race, consider waiting 5 to 10 seconds after the horn to avoid the melee. Position yourself at the edge where there is more room.

6. Respite

If you need to stop or rest, turn onto your back, breathe, and try to relax. This is more desirable than doing a few strokes of breaststroke, as you can easily injure someone’s eye with a sharp kick to the goggle. If you have to do breaststroke, use a flutter kick.

7. Drafting

Drafting is usually legal, acceptable and part of the strategy. Practice your drafting technique with a teammate so that you can do it without impeding another swimmer. Drafting at the hip is the most beneficial but takes practice to do it well. Drafting at the feet is the next best thing. If you touch someone’s feet inadvertently once, no big deal — adjust your position. If you do it again, consider other options. Move back, move to the side, or pass. Remember that it’s much more work to be the leader and if you are lucky enough to be getting a ride from someone don’t be a jerk. You just might get cussed out by me at the finish, which I can assure you is quite unpleasant. Conversely, if you think you may have done something discourteous, inadvertently or not, during the race, an apology might be in order.

8. Foot Touching

If someone grabs or touches your feet repeatedly, you have options. You can let them continue to ruin your swim, kick vigorously and hopefully convey your message, attempt to sprint away, or simply let them pass. In extreme cases you can employ the dreaded Spread Eagle Maneuver but this is an advanced move.

9. The Jock Block

This a general term I have coined when someone cuts you off, squeezes you out of your optimal position, or begins pressuring you off-course. The Barrel Roll, a corkscrew move, can be utilized to quickly roll over the back of someone who has jock-blocked you. It is the easiest way to remain on your original course, without stopping, dropping back, and adjusting — all costly in time and forward momentum.

10. Boat Crews & Kayakers

Communicate with your support boat that they should pay attention and stay out of the way of other swimmers. At the very least, kayakers can be a nuisance as they block the swim course, not paying attention while waiting for a later wave to begin. And, at worst, tragic accidents with boats and swimmers have occurred. Your support boat can also act as backup support for another swimmer in distress.
It’s pretty simple — let’s stay as safe as we can and respect others as more people are drawn to the exciting sport of Open Water Swimming.

Kirsten Read, HeadshotKirsten competed at Brown University and then, after typical shoulder problems and burn-out caused undoubtedly by her tenure in The Distance Lane, promised herself that she would hang up her goggles for good. That promise lasted 20 years until the call was too strong to resist. Masters pool swimming soon segued into a passion for open water swimming. Masters swimming has introduced her to some of her best friends and even her husband, who kayaked for her on an strenuous and eventful blind date at the Nubble Light Challenge in York, Maine.

She is now a coach, specializing in open water for masters swimmers and triathletes.

Kirsten Read, coaching business logoWWW.KGRCOACHING.COM



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9 years ago

Hi, great article but we’re all dying to know over on http://www.facebook.com/irishswimmer about point 8 and what “the dreaded Spread Eagle Maneuver” is?? Tell us all, we don’t seem to have this move in Ireland 😛

9 years ago

This would have been useful a week ago…but thanks!

Becky D
9 years ago

If you get kicked in the mouth, make sure to smile broadly after you exit the water. Nothing like a bloody smile to make you look like a crazy bada@@.

9 years ago

11– if you are fast, start right in the middle of the wave and when the race begins, do butterfly as fast as you can for the first 100 yards or so. People will notice you passing them and be impressed with your skills and accept defeat right off the bat, giving you a mental edge over them for the rest of the race.

Joel Lin
9 years ago

Wherever Kristen is swimming in that picture…I’d love to live the rest of my years.