Can I swim 5k in open waters?
April 26, 2010 7:34 AM   Subscribe

How does open water swimming in a Lake or River compare to swimming in a pool in terms of difficulty?

(Posting for a friend.) I am considering participating in some open water swims this Summer, one in Lake Huron and the other in the Welland Canal. What is holding me back is that I am not sure how much harder open water swimming is than swimming laps in a pool. I am not scared of open water or the cold; but the races have maximum times and I'd like to have some way of comparing my speed in the pool to my probable speed in the race so I don't show up only to be kicked out of the water half way to the finish line.

For a baseline of my swimming speed/strength I can swim 110x30m in a non-stop hour at my local pool. The time limits are 1.5 hours for a 3k swim and 2.5 hours for a 5k swim. Thanks, hivemind!
posted by wo to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I suspect that the variables of wind, current, waves, and temperature will be the deciding factors, and we don't know any of this information.
posted by HuronBob at 7:37 AM on April 26, 2010

Your will actually go faster than usual in rivers and canals, because you'll generally be swimming downstream. How fast will obviously depend on the river or canal.
posted by Sourisnoire at 7:45 AM on April 26, 2010

The change is really hard to calculate and the best bet is to get outside and train. I was able to swim two miles in the pool by the time I first attempted to swim 0.8 miles outside. It took ever ounce of strength I had to finish!

Most swimmers have an unperceived stroke fault that causes them to swim not perfectly straight. In a pool with lane lines, most of us unconsciously correct countless times in a lap based on the visual cues of the floor and the lane lines. In open water, there's nothing like this, so you can swim head down and slowly drift off course (or quickly if you swim like me.)

You need to learn how to sight. This is a quick peek up above the waterline to figure out where you are going. If you do this poorly, your hips will drop out of your streamline and make it difficult to get going again.

Another big change is that flip turns are a nice change of pace that keep you fresher in a pool than outside. If you've ever made the transition from a 25m pool to a 50m pool, you have probably already figured that out.

Get outside and practice with an open water group, or along side a canoeing friend, and good luck!
posted by advicepig at 8:03 AM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Visibility is a consideration, too. Lakes are murkier, and thus you often cannot spot hazards in front of you or gauge how far underneath you the bottom might be.
posted by yoyoceramic at 8:11 AM on April 26, 2010

Sighting and swimming straight is usually the biggest difference when transitioning to open water. It's also possible your nerves will get the better of you and you'll try to swim too fast or adjust your stoke negatively and use more energy.

Only thing you can do is try it somewhere safe beforehand and try it.
posted by csimpkins at 8:32 AM on April 26, 2010

My father is a triathlete and therefore has done quite a few swims in open water as well as training in pools. Two things he's mentioned in the past as challenges were 1) sighting, which has already been mentioned by advicepig and 2) the scrabble in the beginning of a race, when everyone is clumped fairly close together in the water. It's much more intense than swimming in one's own designated lane; there are people all around who are thrashing, kicking, etc. until they start to spread out. Comfort with that sort of in-water crowding comes only with practice and race experience.
posted by fantine at 8:38 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't worry about failing to beat the maximum time. The slow swimming police are not going to come lock you up; they will just send a SAG boat to pluck you out and take you back. No biggie.

There are lots of running races that have similar constraints - if you can't finish the Seven Mile Bridge Race (Key West) timely, you have to get on the bus. And then you have a better idea of what speed feels like under race conditions, so you can try again next year.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:42 AM on April 26, 2010

My problems with swimming in open water when I train mostly in the pool:

- Nthing sighting/swimming straight

- Nthing visibility

- Big bodies of water, like Great Lakes and oceans, have waves to them. If you breathe unilaterally, this can be a big disadvantage in OWS because the waves tend to all come from the same direction -- it gets really frustrating to have waves smacking you in the face when you're trying to breathe. Start practicing bilateral breathing if you don't already do it (I'm coming from a triathlon background and a lot of us aren't great swimmers).

- fantine mentioned the "washing-machine effect" of a mass start open-water swim. It sounds a lot less scary than it actually is: you end up in the middle of a hundred of your closest friends, who are all accidentally punching you, kicking you, and swimming on top of you. It makes it hard to breathe, and all those people really churn up the bottom so that you can't see anything except chocolate-milk-colored haze every time your face is below the waterline. Pretty much everyone who's caught in that for the first time panics. There isn't really any cure for the panic except to do it a few times until you get used to it. For your first few OWS events, get as far back and as off-to-the-side as possible, so you don't get caught in the thick of the crowd. Sure, if you're off to the side, you have to swim a few extra meters, but not getting kicked in the face or throat is definitely worth the extra distance.
posted by kataclysm at 8:59 AM on April 26, 2010

I've actually never done distance open water swimming but I have hung out with lots of triathletes and a couple big differences are sighting and the variances of water (choppy, murky or not, current, etc.). The other thing is that you don't have a wall to push off of. When you are swimming laps, every 30 seconds or so (in a 25 yard lane), you flip and push off, gliding underwater for a distance. This gives you a sort of rest break from the stroke and gives you a nice distance. In the open water you are just swimming, swimming, swimming.

I'd advise your friend to see if they can get some open water training in. It doesn't have to be the same body of water or type (a lake is great) but there's nothing like giving it a go to both get you comfortable and learn technique. I bet there's groups in your area that have a regular open water swim meetup for training. Find them!
posted by amanda at 9:22 AM on April 26, 2010

I've done a lot of open water swimming (I'm a triathlete) including 2.4 miles for Ironman in what was particularly rough water. The biggest things to hold you up are current, temperature, sighting (or getting hit in the face with a wave while trying to sight!), freaking out in the murk/weeds etc and the number of people swimming around you.

As a non-swimmer, I found open water hard going for the reasons mentioned above. I suggest just getting out there and getting used to it will help, but I never compare the two times (pool vs open water). Lake swimming is always much slower and not by a regularly quantifiable amount, although YMMV.
posted by poissonrouge at 9:53 AM on April 26, 2010

One aspect of OWS that gets beginners is frustration about progress, or the perceived lack thereof. You don't have easy markers for distance. How far have I gone? How much more is left? Am I on pace? I'm counting strokes, but now I've lost track. But even if my count is correct, am I going the same distance per stroke on this swim as I do in the pool? WTF? I'll just stop and look around. OK, I can see the buoy. How far away is that? Swim, swim, swim, look around. I can still see the buoy, but geez, have I made any progress at all? When is this going to be over?

When you get inside your head like that -- and it's easy to do -- the course seems waaay more difficult than it really is.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:01 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

It has been mentioned but I will emphasize just to have another voice:

Most swimmers have an unperceived stroke fault Don't under estimate this, you can be way off if you don't look about every third stroke. Practice covers this.

Temperature - this can make a difference in how you perform. Until you get some experience in open water, expect this to be a factor. For lakes it may not be a factor but the ocean it can be. I have swum in northern lakes where you were scoffed at for wearing a tri-wetsuit, so you don't wear one and the temperature will affect you.

Rough Water - I am poor at breathing from both sides, so chop is a factor in my swims.

Lastly, there are a lot of swims out there. Try different types and get used to it. My first was a 1.5 mile in a lake - perfectly calm water and a nice temp. I learned a lot that day.
posted by fluffycreature at 11:41 AM on April 26, 2010

Seconding fluffycreature for the temperature part especially.

I did a triathlon once upon a time that involved a swim in Lake Ontario, and had done very little in the way of open lake swimming as part of my training. This was a very dumb move. It was very cold, even in August, and there is a big difference in terms of how waves affect your swimming. It is quite a bit different from the pool, and when you're out there and getting tired, a wave to the face as you look up to check progress or to catch a breath is a terrible thing.

Also, there is a psychological difference that comes with the knowledge that you're out there in the middle of a lake with no hope of resting even for a second. I found that there were a few moments of near-panic for me as I was out in the middle of the swim, mainly due to either getting hit by a wave and losing my breath, or as I felt myself starting to get tired. That sort of feeling is very counterproductive, way more than I would have thought ahead of time.

As everyone has said, your friend should begin swimming regularly in open water, preferably in the area where the swims will be. The experience will be invaluable.
posted by dnesan at 12:13 PM on April 26, 2010

Follow-up from my friend:

Thanks everyone for the advice!

I am actually feeling a bit more confident now, since no one has said I am crazy for considering these swims at my current level of physical fitness. Based on everyone's advice I am going to try the following four things.
- Taking out flip turns from the laps (turning around will be slower than what I'll have to deal with in the water; but it does let me know how I handle swimming without a break)
- Working on breathing on both sides (so I am not overwhelmed by waves from one direction)
- Practice swimming laps with my eyes closed (so I can straighten my stoke)
- Swimming in open water while being followed by a canoe (Thanks so much for this, I am a much stronger swimmer than my friends so I had no idea how I was going to go out and practice in open water before the event)
posted by wo at 2:55 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I should also add that in most open water swims, there's nothing wrong with taking a break by holding on to one of the lifeguard canoes/paddleboards/etc. It's actually a really good idea if you get kicked hard and swallow a bunch of water.
posted by advicepig at 5:06 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Forget the eyes closed, practice instead: flipping your head straight ahead immediately after taking a breath, but before it plunges back into the water. Imho, this - if you get good at it - is the best way of sighting, and you need only do it every ten strokes or so. Practice is necessary however to get a good flow.

Breathing on both sides is a must. Other than that, swimming in smaller lakes and rivers is pretty much just like a very deep pool. You'll be fine. You don't get the extra buoyancy of the ocean, but nor do you get its waves and tides. Have fun! :)
posted by smoke at 5:19 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

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