If you’re gearing up for Ironman Tulsa, now is the time to get in the lake for open-water swimming practice. Since IMTUL is an early spring race, you should expect the water to be chilly.
In Ironman races, wetsuits can be worn if the water temperature is 76.1 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. If the water temp is cooler than 60 degrees, wetsuits are mandatory.
In 2021, the Tulsa race was “wetsuit legal,” and I expect that it will be again this year. So practicing in the open water, with your wetsuit, is vital to your confidence on race day!
Getting comfortable in the open water was one of the biggest challenges for me as a triathlete. I was not much of a swimmer prior to getting into the sport, so I took swimming lessons and practiced in the pool for months until I built up endurance.
But moving to the lake was a whole new ballgame. Beyond the basics of swimming, there are several nuances to open-water swimming that deserve focus:
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Goggles: In the open water, you need to be able to see where you are going. I recommend testing out several brands until you find one that fits you well without leaking.
I also recommend an anti-fog solution; my favorite is plain old baby shampoo. Wipe it on a clean dry goggle lens and then wipe it off. It is miraculous!
Sighting: This is something that can and should be practiced in the pool and then really put to the test in the lake. Many triathletes have gotten off course and ended up swimming many extra meters or missed the time cutoff because they lacked direction.
To have an efficient swim, you need to swim as close as possible to straight lines.
Know the course: There is a lot of follow-the-leader in triathlon, but in all three disciplines, you must be careful because the person in front of you could be off course.
Know what the swim course is, practice it several times, if possible, and use your unfogged and goggled eyes to make sure you are staying on course.Wetsuits: I have a love-hate relationship with wetsuits. They are awesome for buoyancy, which helps with efficiency, and they keep you nice and cozy, even in chilly water.
But they are as tight as a second skin, difficult to get on and off, and if they don’t fit right or you aren’t used to them, they can make you feel like you are choking and struggling to breathe. They can also rub you around the neck or arms, creating painful chafing.
Practicing getting into and out of your wetsuit is as critical as swimming in it. I recommend practicing in it at least three to four times before race day and more if you can. Use a wetsuit-safe lube to reduce chafing.
Swim cap: Even if you’re as bald as Mr. Clean, always wear a swim cap in open water. It should be a light, bright color to make you more visible to watercraft and race safety support crews. Plenty of kayaks and paddleboards will be on the course on race day to ensure your safety. Be sure they can see you.
Plus, for athletes with hair, the swim cap does a great job of keeping it out of the face.Water safety support crews: The water safety support crews are out there in case you need them, but they aren’t allowed to assist you in moving forward.
In triathlon, you can swim over to a kayak and hold onto it if you need to, but you cannot advance forward with the help of a kayak or paddleboard. As you swim, be aware of where the water support people are. It gave me great comfort to know help was available, just in case.
Swim buoys: These flotation devices, available in some local running and tri stores as well as online, fasten around your waist and float behind you as you swim. If you get out of breath or have a cramp during training, you can hold onto them. A must for open-water training, they cannot be used on race day.
Companions: Practicing with other swimmers is also a must in open water. Never swim alone!
And when training for a triathlon, practicing swimming in a cluster of people will prepare you for race day. This can be one of the scariest things to encounter. Even though IM Tulsa athletes will start the swim in waves, you will be in a large group of people, and you most likely will be touched at some point during your swim. It is very helpful to practice this so that you don’t freak out when it happens on race day.
I have been kicked, elbowed and everything in between. I have even had my goggles knocked off by a hard elbow to the face. Everyone is heads down and swimming and trying to make it through the water. If someone touches you, you must learn to take a breath, know that the person did not do it on purpose, and move on.For newer open-water swimmers, it’s normal to have some anxiety about taking the plunge. Like most things, the more you do it, the more comfortable you will be. And for swimming, comfort is so important, since calm and even breathing is vital.
Hop in and overcome — it will be so worth it!