How Do I Prepare For My Open Water Race?

Would you like to make your next open-water race experience as pleasant and successful as possible? Here is a way to maximize your chances of that…

1206 cirali owc

Here is summary of my advice for how to prepare for your next open-water race:

Practice like you race and race like you practice.

Or to put it another way: As far as possible for you, do not add any new element to your race that you have not been regularly including in your practice.

In order to safely match your high expectations for performance to reality very little should be a new experience to you on race day, other than the event itself. Everything you intend to do and and every piece of equipment or skill you intend to use in a race should be tested and experienced repeatedly in practice well before you use it in an actual race. This will minimize a host of negative things (Murphy’s Law!) that can go in unexpected directions on the day you’ve been training for. There are many things you cannot control about the race, about nature, or about other participants, but there is a great deal you can and should control, if you plan ahead of time.

Here is some quick, simple advice I might give:

No new goggles or swimsuit. Wear what you normally wear in practice.
No new food types. Eat what you normally eat before practice.
No faster-than-normal Tempo. Swim in the patterns you’ve trained for.

Here is a sampling of more details a swimmer should think through:

If a race conditions include:

  • Open-water – train in open-water as often as possible.
  • Salt water – practice in salt water*.
  • Cold/hot water and weather – train in colder/cooler water and weather.
  • Rough water – train in rougher water.
  • Murky water – train in murky water.
  • Currents – train in currents.
  • Long distance – train at longer distances.
  • Rain or wind – train in the rain and wind.

* Salt burns the mouth and chaffs between rubbing skin after a short while without protection.

If course design includes:

  • Tight crowd at start – practice starts in a crowd of swimmers.
  • Unusual start or exit from water – practice those starts and exits.
  • Buoy turns – practice sighting, aiming and executing those turns.

If the race imposes ___X___ upon my body or mind:

  • Lack of sleep the night before- train on a lack of sleep often enough to be used to it.
  • Early morning start – practice in early mornings.
  • Crowded/Isolated conditions – practice swimming in crowded/isolated conditions.
  • Longer-than-usual mental endurance – practice longer-than-usual attention and self-entertainment.

If the race requires equipment such as:

  • Wetsuit – train in your wetsuit as much as possible.
  • Special racing suit – train in your special racing suit.
  • Special goggles – practice with those special goggles.
  • Personal swim buoy or person-rescue device – train while having those attached to your body.

And, I must say, if you plan to be in the water more than an hour, you should practice peeing on the go or at a floating rest. Yes, it is a regular part of open-water swimming! The fish do it, so can you. This too is a skill that needs to be practiced.


Salt water or fresh, murky or incredibly clear water, long distance, a tight crowd of competitors, wetsuit (or no wetsuit), feeding stations, water from a kayak, turns, sighting to buoys or landmarks, bad weather, early morning start (or late) – NONE of those features, or as few as possible, should be a new experience for you on race day. It will be challenging enough that you will be faced with several of them at the same time. But, as a responsible competitor you need to make every effort to expose yourself to and become completely familiar with the conditions you will race in before you race in them. Don’t burden yourself, your fellow competitors, or the race staff by coming to the race unprepared for it.

Really, you want to make the any conditions the race may present you with as routine as possible – almost anti-climactic. Novices expect to be swept up by an adrenaline rush, experts save it for strategic moments.

If your open-water race is meant to be your first exposure to certain conditions (either you can’t or don’t bother to expose yourself to those challenges before the race) then I recommend that you change your orientation from one of ‘racing’ to one of ‘exploring’ or ‘experimenting’. Go to the race, not to get a certain time result, but to simply gather information and experience. If Murphy, for some strange reason, doesn’t show up to impose trying circumstances you may be pleasantly surprised by a better-than-expected finish, but let that be the icing on the cake of keeping and open-mind and attitude in a very new and likely challenging experience.

But if you are taking open-water racing seriously you need to prepare for it seriously.

The mantra drilled into my ethos as a woodsman by my uncle (and very thorough civil engineer) who trained me in deep woods skills and survival: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. This means thinking through the worst (reasonably) possible scenarios and training in the specific skills to handle those. When the challenging scenario shows up, there may be a lot of disorienting chemicals surging through the brain but the skills will already be present in the neurons and ready to serve you as habits. There are no short-cuts to building those ingrained emergency and high-performance skills.

Keep in mind that pool swimming is more like a cousin to open-water swimming rather than a sister. Swimming 10k, 3k, or just 1k in a pool is not the same as swimming in open-water – they are similar only in the fact that you are in liquid and you are moving your body in the same mechanical patterns. But so much is different when in open water that pool training alone cannot be safely regarded as adequate preparation for open-water racing, unless one is already an experienced open-water swimmer in the conditions he/she will actually race in. Even an ‘experienced’ open-water swimmer who is familiar only with certain race distance under controlled conditions (like a closed, well-marked course) should be cautious and careful about jumping into new distances and more uncontrolled conditions.

My intention is not to discourage you from signing up for a racing goal, but encourage you to prepare responsibly for it. It is not just a matter of safety, it is a matter of maximizing enjoyment in the experience itself which will make you want to do it again, and to go farther.


Some may also want to read my series on Overcoming Fear In Open-Water.

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