Picking a triathlon with an open water swim(OWS)can be intimidating for someone who has never done one. However, there is no reason that you should not do a triathlon just because it has an open water swim. There is no reason that a triathlon featuring an OWS can’t be your first triathlon.
Open water swimming does produce some challenges. Some of them are obvious such as the lack of lane lines, cold water and nothing to grab onto if things go awry. Before thinking about entering an open water triathlon you need to do an honest self appraisal. If water scares you and you have neither the time nor the ability to practice in a lake prior to the race, it is probably a bad idea. If you know you can swim, even if it is ugly or you have the ability to try lake swimming prior to the race, then by all means, enter it.
Inability to See
Probably the largest challenge of an OWS is the inability to see. In a pool you have stripes painted on the bottom to keep you from crashing into the walls. You have no such luxuries in a lake. This means that you will have to learn to sight out of the water to see where you are. Sighting takes effort, it destroys your form and it slows you down. Failing to sight takes you off course and can make your swim far longer than it should be. Because learning to sight takes time, you will need to practice. This means either heading to a local open water venue or faking it in a pool by swimming with your eyes closed.
The second concern is temperature. If the water will be cold you will need a wetsuit. If you do not have a triathlon specific wetsuit, you will need to borrow, rent or buy one. Because wetsuits can cause claustrophobia and chafing, you will also want to wear it prior to using it in a lake. Additionally, seriously cold water can leave you feeling unable to breathe. If your venue will have very cold water, you should attempt to swim in similar circumstances. Regardless of whether you practice or not, very cold water should be entered at least ten minutes before the race just to remember how to breathe. Do not stay in the water too long or you can become chilled.
Ocean swims and lakes with a lot of chop or stiff winds can make it hard or impossible to breathe on your preferred side. This is why triathletes need to learn to breathe on both sides. Again, you need to practice this in the pool before the race. The easiest way to learn to breathe on both sides in the pool is to swim facing the same side of the pool throughout the entire swim, this ensures that you force yourself to breathe on both your weak and strong sides It will feel strange at first, but before long you should find that you breathe just as easily on the right as you do on the left.
A Chaotic Start
Lastly open water swims offer unique issues with the start. Many people are intimidated about getting into a scrum of flailing legs and attacking elbows. If you are a slow swimmer the solution to this is simple: let the fast people take off and then join the stragglers. If the swim is your strongest sport, then you are going to have to learn how to fight it out with the big boys if you want to get a fast start.
The ability swim in open water opens up new race venues and new distances. And for those for whom a flip turn is an act of self sabotage, open water swimming may be preferred. Open water swims are much more intimidating if you have never done one, so your finest recipe for success is to get out there to your nearest lake and practice.