For the last two years, as a service to our local swimmer community, I have conducted private lessons as well as lake and river swimming clinics to help athletes in our area prepare for the swim leg of our local Ironman 70.3 Oregon race. In the Willamette River that runs through the city, the swim leg is 1900 meters long (1.2 miles), point-to-point, starting upstream. While the river current helps the swimmer most of the way to the finish, there are two features that make this swim more serious than many participants seemed to understand or respect: the water could be relatively cold depending on the recent weather (which it was), and in the first 2 minutes of the swim the river flows swiftly over a shallow gravel bar, creating some rapids. Though not dangerous if one just keeps the face down in the water and stays flat to let the river have its way, this section of the swim has proven to be psychologically overwhelming to a number of participants.
I swim and have led clinics in this waterway for years and I know the challenges and take them seriously. Because of my concern for safety, I agreed to act as the volunteer captain of the lifeguard team for the race last year. I knew the start of the race would be the most challenging part as people slipped into the cool, dark water and then soon were carried into visibly shallow water, being swept along for 30 seconds or so over the shallows too fast and strong to resist. I stationed three of the strongest swimming guards on the dry tip of the gravel bar right next to those rapids, where we conducted dozens of rescues of distressed swimmers coming through it. There were no problems from the group of pros who started first – they were prepared physically and mentally for this, as expected. However, the rate of distress increased dramatically as thousands of swimmers started dripping into the river from fastest-pace participants at the front to slowest-pace participants toward the back. Those we rescued were clearly not prepared physically and/or mentally for this part of the event.
As another act of public service – as an athlete, as a coach, as a lifeguard, and as one who has functioned at various levels of event administration – I am writing this article to urge participants of this event and others to take seriously the nature of open water swimming and show proper respect for one’s own well-being, for the event staff and other participants, and for the sport to survey and then train sufficiently for the real rigors of the events. The increasing popularity of these events seems to distract many from awareness of the investment that is necessary to do these safely, with strength and joy.
What is the standard for how one should experience the event?
First, we need to limit this discussion to common events that normal, citizen athlete participate in – in other words, a non-professional who has a job, people to care for, and other responsibilities that take up most of your time and energy during the week. These are events that citizen athletes can reasonably train for during the week and of a distance and in conditions that one could reasonably experience within normal weekly training sessions. 1.9K is a distance that people could easily fit within a single practice session and places to swim in open water are often accessible.
With these kinds of events in mind, the basic standard is that you should be able to swim (keep moving forward) the entire distance, continuously, and do it competently and comfortably.
Competence here means the skills and strength to do the entire distance, and be able to handle the navigation and any conditions that this environment could impose upon you – including all the water and weather conditions that are within the realm of possibility for this location and time of year. Comfort here means that you are able to go through and finish that event without distress, without injury to your body or mind and enjoy it, even if you encounter some difficulties.
While some difficulties are a normal part of the event, trauma should not be. It is not the responsibility of the event directors to protect you from that which your training should. It is your responsibility to understand your personal situation and engage in a process that makes you sufficiently fit physically and mentally to do this event safely and with joy.
How do you reach that standard?
You can and absolutely should learn the fundamental stroke skills and develop the basic fitness for swimming the entire distance continuously in the pool where it is most convenient to do so, sparing you from having your nervous system overloaded by the stimuli of open water. It is the easiest part of the standard to reach and the one every athlete should feel the responsibility to do completely, at a minimum. You are definitely not ready for the event if you cannot swim continuously (no stopping) the full distance in the pool without a wetsuit. A wetsuit is not and should not be regarded as compensation for a lack of basic distance swimming skills and fitness.
Being prepared for the natural conditions of the outdoor event is less convenient, but is equally important to do. Training in the open water is necessary to develop the specific physical and mental skills and fitness that are unique to swimming in the natural environment. While traveling to events in attractive locations that present unusual swimming conditions is relatively common and easy to do, the ease of getting there and the popularity of the event is not an indicator of how well your skill and fitness level will be able to handle those unfamiliar conditions. At a bare minimum, you should experience swimming in open water, in your wetsuit, and for the full distance. The more you can expose yourself to the full range of challenges the event could possibly impose and practice handling them, the more likely it will be you will reach this standard.
Start your work in the pool then eventually add work in the lake and then in the river. Start with easy/mild conditions and gradually work your way to dealing with challenging/rough conditions until there is nothing the event can present that you haven’t encountered in training.
In other words, when you encounter or simulate all the features of the event in training there will be a lower possibility of distressing surprises to your body or mind when you do the event for real.
How do you know?
For this specific race in the Willamette River, if you are competent and relatively comfortable swimming continuously the full distance in a cool lake without physical or mental strain, the next step is to practice doing it in the river where you are not in complete control over your motion and learn to handle that calmly. If you are not able to swim the full distance continuously, or you are not comfortable swimming continuously in a lake in even mild conditions, you are definitely not ready for the river. You are ready when, because of training and experience (not wishful thinking), you are confident that you can do it with competence and comfort even in difficult conditions, that no distress will occur and no rescue will be necessary.
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