by Jay Prasuhn June 23, 2022

Triathlon coach Donna Phelan of Quintana Roo-supported Campfire Endurance Coaching has done it all as a pro; she’s raced everything from ITU World Championships and the Hawaii Ironman and has trained under everyone from Paula Newby-Fraser to Dave Scott.

An accomplished swimmer in her own right (she swam Olympic Trial for Canada in her early swimming days), she’s experienced what a difference it is to move from swimming in the pool to the open water. In fact, for races that she’s come out of the water inside the top 10 or higher, she’s done 99 percent of her preparation in the pool building good form and fitness.

But the open water can take all that good form, regimentation and throw it out the window when the gun goes off and you’re thrown into the proverbial washing machine. What to do when the lane lines are gone, and the black line just becomes the black abyss in open water? What are the most important things to know about transitioning from pool swimming to open water for race day? Donna gives us her top three tips.

1. WETSUIT PRACTICE IN THE POOL

For those that are landlocked in, say Tucson, Ariz., where bodies of open water are scarce, it’s easy to think it’s not practical to test our wetsuits before a race. But Phelan says yep; you can test your wetsuit in the pool—and should. In fact, ahead of a race, it’s a very good idea, because the wetsuit changes, well, everything about your swim; your body position and stroke experience a big change once you put on that neoprene.

“I have my athletes early season doing a couple workouts in the pool in their wetsuits, especially if they don’t have access to open water or if ocean is simply too cold to get in to do practice swims yet,” Phelan says. “It helps my athletes get used to the difference in buoyancy and changes in their stroke. It also helps condition their upper body muscles to wearing a wetsuit for extended period of time.

“And that’s a big part of it,” she adds. “Getting used to the change in buoyancy and how it affects your stroke is a big deal. It’s easier to make that transition to open water if you’ve adapted to the changes in your stroke in the pool first.”

2. PACE WISELY

It happens at every race; the gun goes off, and you blast out of the gates, excited to be in the mix. It’s happening you’re swimming hard to stay on the feet of the swimmer in front of you… and suddenly, your heart rate spikes. You’ve overdone it. You lose the feet, and the rest of the pack goes by as you try to get your heart rate to come back down.

We never have this happen in the pool because we’re in a lane of similar-speed swimmers. But in open water, you very well may be trying to swim on the feet of a 1:03/100m swimmer… and you’re a 1:30 base swimmer. This experience of “blowing up” has happened to all of us, especially if you’re doing a race in a venue at altitude.

Phelan’s tip? Let your breathing rate be your guide. While most other aspects of the race can be paced using our tools (like a power meter or Garmin for mile pace), the swim should be paced by what our heart is telling us.

“It’s important to not let your breathing rate get out of control,” Phelan says. “Keep it aerobic. Once you reach anaerobic threshold, you begin to burn glycogen… in other words, you burn matches. And you only have so many of those to burn in a race. That’ll come back to haunt you if you end up using them during the swim. Swimming is a cardiovascular sport, so it’s your breathing rate that’s going to give you your best feedback.”

3. REDUCE YOUR ANXIETY

Moving from the comfort of lane lines and that black line at the bottom of the pool to… well, no lines, bodies everywhere and a bottom you can’t see can be jarring to triathletes that haven’t had a chance to get familiar with open water.

“If you have anxiety swimming in large bodies of water, try to diminish it by getting used to it before race day," she says.

There’s also the excitement of race day. And usually, that excitement leads to going out too fast, right from the gun. So, relax; it’s a long day, and the swim is just a small part of it.

“It’s important to remember you don’t need to rush the swim,” Phelan says. “A controlled, relaxed effort that you do at every pool workout versus going anaerobic and trying to be with a lead group could mean only anywhere from 40 second to two minutes advantage—and that amount of time savings isn’t going to make or break your race.

Another idea to ensure you don’t go out too hard at the start? Position to the side facing the way you breathe (positioned on the left side of the start line if you’re a right breather, for example). When the gun goes off, take 15 seconds, let the chaos blast off the start line… then ease into your swim. Those 30 seconds won’t make a big difference in your race time, but you’ll be starting the race on your terms… and no doubt you’ll be catching swimmers that have blown up by going out too hard.

Finally, if the nerves get to you, just flip over onto your back, float (even backstroke a bit), and take a breath.

“On the off chance you experience nerves, just remember your wetsuit is a flotation device,” she says. “Just roll onto your back and take 30 seconds to relax, float, and just settle a bit before resuming.”

BONUS TIP: PRACTICE SIGHTING

While the mechanics of sighting is something you can and should practice in the pool in your race lead-up (doing two or three big pulls with your upper body up to get a periscope view of your bearing), the best bet is to be sure to get in the water a few days before any race. Pick a few landmarks on shore for your return to land and get a good idea of where those turn buoys are located with more markers that may exist beyond them.

"Just removing that factor of not knowing your path around the swim course, you can save yourself a lot of time on race day," Phelan says. "Staying on course means the difference between the swim split you want, or swimming an additional, and easily unnecessary 200 or 300 meters. Being prepared with good sighting—and doing it during your pre-race course swim—is a big one." 

And don’t follow feet blindly; if you take ownership of knowing your path, you won’t be kicking yourself if you've put your faith in the the swimmer ahead of you.. and they lead you off course.

As you can see, the pool can (and should) get you to race day with the fitness and form you need for a solid swim. But with a bit of preparation and these tips, you can segue to open water and handle the race day craziness of hundreds (or thousands) of swimmers just like a pro.

Jay Prasuhn
Jay Prasuhn



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On the border of two sizes?
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Measure for Maximum Performance
If you're not transferring measurements from a similar triathlon specific bike, to get completely "dialed in" for maximum performance, we recommend you see a reputable professional bike fitter that can fit you to your new Quintana Roo.

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Measure for Maximum Performance
If you're not transferring measurements from a similar triathlon specific bike, to get completely "dialed in" for maximum performance, we recommend you see a reputable professional bike fitter that can fit you to your new Quintana Roo.
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