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Swimming with the Big Fish: open water basics

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Before you swim a stroke, it's important to educate yourself about the body of water. You want to be able to picture the course in your head during the swim, especially at the start when there are a lot of swimmers and a lot of churning water. Know where you're going! Learn about the currents or tides. Ask what the bottom is like, or wade in and check it for submerged rocks, weeds, or fallen trees. Make sure the water is clean enough for safe swimming. Ask the organizers about marine life -- jellyfish or snapping turtles, or other things that bite or sting.

Shore up

If you're a newcomer, stay close to the shore. Test your mettle beforehand by going back and forth across a roped-in swimming area. Don't start out by just heading straight out across a lake and then find out halfway across that you're having a panic attack. Start off by swimming along the ropes, where it's not that deep, so if you get freaked out, you can always swim in a few yards and stand up.

Don't swim solo

Do your training swims as part of a group (the social aspect adds to the experience) or, at least, make sure someone on shore is watching you. If you get tired during the swim, rest by doing backstroke or breaststroke.

Be sensible

Swimming with a buddy isn't the only smart thing to do in oepn water. It also helps if you wear a bright-colored swim cap, return to shore before darkness falls, put sunscreen on your back on sunny days, and make sure you have enough energy to make it back to shore. The big thing is safety.

Cozy up to cold

The temperature in open water can be 10 degrees or more colder than a pool. Be prepared! Start with short swims and build up to longer ones as your body adapts. Have a physical exam before you dive into chilly open water. Feel free to wear a setwuit and insulated swim cap if the water is too cold. Be on the alert for symptoms of hypothermia -- drowsiness, loss of coordination, confusion, and a general slowing down of mental and physical function -- which can occur when your body temperature drops more than 4 degrees below normal. When you go from an 82-degree pool into a 68-degree lake or ocean, there's a period of adjustment, even if you're in good shape.

Race right

It's important to warm up completely before an open-water event. Test the water, get comfortable with its temperature, inspect the bottom, and loosen up your limbs. Do some dryland exercises to get your muscles moving. Warm up with some calisthenics, which also help dissolve pre-race jitters.

Start right

The start of an open-water swim is always tricky: scores of swimmers are diving in together and heading for the same distant buoy. There's a lot of bumping. To avoid the mayhem, line up on the far outside of the starting pack and angle toward the turn buoy.After 100 yards or so, the group will have separated and you can find all the open sapce you need.

Breathe right

Beware of a weird and unpleasant phenomenon that can occur during the first few strokes of an open-water race: you may find you can't breathe correctly. Suddenly you feel as though you've lost the ability to swim. Even athletes at the front of the pack aren't immune. Slow down, relax, flip on your back, or do some breaststroke. Take long, slow breaths and soon you'll settle into a normal breathing pattern and be on your way.

This article was condensed from an article in Fitness Swimmer magazine that was published on-line at www.activeusa.com