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Swimming Your First Open Water Race
(or even your second or third)

What you should do on race day to have the best race possible

David Miner


Signing up for your first open water race is exciting knowing that you’re
committed to showing up on race day and swimming the best race possible.
But, what does “best race possible” mean?

There are many things you can do to have a great race from picking the best
race for your abilities to training hard and eating right. For this article, we’re
going to focus on race day and what you should do to make sure you’re
​ready to start and swim well.

One to three days before the race

A few days prior to the race is an important period in preparing for race day. Showing up on race day morning being prepared is important for success. Take time each day to check the local weather. Knowing the air temperature, water temperature, whether it’s going to be windy or rainy can guide you on what to bring for both prior to and after the race. You don’t want to finish being cold and not have warm clothes to put on because you never bothered to check the weather.

Start thinking about, collecting, and packing everything you want to bring. Don’t forget, you may need and want different things pre-race and post race. Things like a change of clothes, a chair to sit on, pre-race drink, post race recovery drink, your goggles, swimsuit, and a jacket are all items to pack. Make a list and review it often. Race day morning is not the time for getting everything together because you’re sure to forget something important.

Know where you’re going race day morning. Map the race location and know how to get there. Waiting until the last minute to figure out how to get to the event can cost considerable time. Getting lost is not something you want to happen on race day.

Wake up and show up early

Set your alarm to wake up early. Don’t sleep in and have to rush. You’ll want plenty of time to eat breakfast, get fluids onboard, and pull together the last items before you leave. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the event, so leave early. Rushing around early in the morning just creates more stress.

Show up to the race early. Give yourself ample time to find parking, walk to the race, and check in. Checking in can take time with lines of other swimmers all getting marked with their swim number, getting their swim cap and timing chip, and picking up their swag bag. You also want time to get yourself in order, like going to the bathroom, putting on your swimsuit, checking your goggles, drinking, and maybe eating something light.

Attend and pay close attention to the pre-race briefing

Attend the pre-race briefing. It’s required and a very important piece of the race for your safety and understanding. You’ll learn about the racecourse, how safety is being provided, emergency procedures for swimmers, how the race is being timed, where and how the race starts and finishes, and post race procedures and events. Get a good spot and listen closely and ask questions if you’re unsure of anything.

Most race directors have a map of the swim course. Find a moment to look at the course map. If there is no course map, walk to the water and look at the course. Know where the start and finish are, how the course is designed and where the turn buoys are and how you’re going to go around them (on your right or left shoulder). Know if there are directional buoys in between the turn buoys to help you navigate, and make a plan on where to start and how to swim the course. Understanding the course and having a plan greatly reduces mental stress, allows you to swim more comfortably, and to have fun.

The start, the swim, the finish

Once on the start line, you want to pick a spot within the pack that suits your abilities. If you’re a slower swimmer, avoid starting in the front-center of the pack, as you’ll have many swimming over you to get by. There is nothing wrong with starting in the back or out on the end or even waiting for everyone to go and falling in behind. Swimming in the middle of the pack can be a contact sport, something you may want to avoid your first race. Being stressed right from the beginning is no fun.

Once in the water, get yourself relaxed by swimming a pace that fits your ability. Don’t sprint at the start and get overworked and stressed. Find your pace, sight often, and stay on course. If towards the end you feel you can pick up your pace, then do so. Swimming straight, going around the buoys correctly, and keeping a steady pace allows you to finish strong and have a great time.

Post race

Coming across the finish line is exciting and rewarding. You accomplished a goal and did something you set your mind to. Enjoy the feeling. There is plenty of time later to evaluate your race and look for ways to improve the next time.

Hydrate as soon as possible. Most races provide water or a sport’s drink so make sure you start the recovery process as soon as you finish. If possible, go back into the water (outside the course) and do an easy recovery swim to loosen up. If it’s cold, clean up and change into comfortable clothes as quickly as possible.

Stick around for the award ceremony and post race party. Typically there is a spread of food free to all swimmers. Even if you’re not getting an award, you’ll have the opportunity to meet other open water swimmers and like-minded people. You can compare notes about the swim and your experience and make new friends. You can also learn from others who may be more seasoned open water swimmers and learn something to apply to your next race.