Open Water vs. The Pool

Posted: June 9, 2011 in Swim
Tags: ,

This evening was my first opportunity to get in an open water swim prior to competing in my first Olympic triathlon of the season this Sunday in Woodstock.  Today was my ‘swim tune up’, if you will so we headed out to the new Welland International Flatwater Center, which is a gorgeous new public facility catering to rowers, dragon boaters, and open water swimmers of all skill levels.  The water temperature was, shall we say, a wee bit on the chilly side, but it quickly warmed up once we got in.  The intent was only for a quick paddle simply to get reacquainted to swimming in my wetsuit, practice my sighting, as well as getting the feel of swimming in open water again.

In short, where I find my pool workouts to be a tad on the boring side, I freaking love open water swimming and I can even see myself pursuing this more regularly in the future.  But, in the meantime, there are some pretty major differences than when I’m working out in the pool.

Warning: objects may be more distant than they first appear.

The biggest fundamental difference between open water swimming and pool swimming as I see it involves the not being able to push off a wall in large bodies of water.  If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to train in a 50m pool, then you are probably only able to actually swim “long” course for a few months out the year.  Therefore the majority of swim training is done in a short 25m pool which, if you account for push offs, means we are really only “swimming” around 20m per lap.  On top of that, we are resting and breaking our stroke every time we make a turn at the wall.  Not so in the open water.

The ‘ol wetsuit tug-o-war.

Another obvious difference between the pool and open water is the presence of a current.  Whether you are swimming in an ocean, lake, or as in my case tonight, a canal, the difference from the pool will be massive.  Even on calm days, the presence of waves in the open water will present a resistance unlike any you could ever see in a pool; not even the swell generated by the old ladies in the Aquafit class adjacent to my swim lane can compare.  Imagine swimming laps behind a 300 lb linebacker whose only job is to slam water towards your face.  For those who have never swum in the open water, this is not a feeling you want to save for game day.

“Look! No assistance necessary!”

Of course, there’s the water temperature to consider as well.  The open water is going to be much, much colder than the pool, and this can present a whole slew of new challenges if you aren’t prepared for it.  First and foremost, colder water will constrict your muscles, making you more likely to injure yourself.  It will also constrict your lungs, which will throw off your breathing rhythm, making your endurance suffer tremendously.  It will also constrict your lungs, which will throw off your breathing rhythm, making your endurance suffer tremendously. In order to combat this, splash the cold water on your face a few times in order to brace your body for that initial shock when you actually dive in.  Trust me here! A wetsuit helps too obviously.

Real men wear pink swm caps!

Not all differences are bad, however.  One benefit to open water swims is that humans are more buoyant in larger bodies of water than they are in pools, particularly if said human happens to be wearing  a wetsuit, which here in Canada, is practically a necessity.  Of course, swimming in a wetsuit is a rather unique experience in itself in that it’s constricting and rather claustrophobic, but nothing you can’t get past with a little experience under your belt swim goggles.  Another beneficial difference is the presence of wind and the swimmers current in open water races.  I know I just said that it presents a challenge to stay on course while it happens to be running/blowing against you, but when it’s going in y0ur direction, boy, look out!  Swimming with the wind will give you an added push, and if you start later in the race, you’ll have your predecessors to thank for the slight current that they create moving you towards the finish line quicker.

Guess he’s never seen a fat man in a pink swim cap either…

Though many of these differences may deter swimmers from entering the open water before absolutely necessary, the thing to remember is this: none of these challenges are insurmountable with a little practice.  The more time you spend in the open water before your race, the less time you will spend in the water during it, and my strategy this year is to rock the shit out of the swim this Sunday and get a quick lead over my training peers heading out onto the bike course.

  1. Jan says:

    Funny pics and learned a lot about open water swimming from you. Kinda concered about the dog liking you though. Kick but in Woodstock. You are ready for it!

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