Open Water Swimming Tip: Six Culprits Of Slow Open Water Times

Chances are you do a majority of your swim training in a pool. Yet in nearly all triathlon races the swim happens in open water.


Your ability to transfer your skills and speed from the pool to open water will determine how successful you are on race day.

It would absolutely suck if you spent months improving your swimming in the pool only to be just as slow or slower the next time you race in open water, wouldn’t it!?!

Yet a lot of triathletes struggle with this issue.

There are SIX main culprits that cause us to swim slower in open water than in the pool. Four of them are in our direct control, two of them are not.

Today I want to introduce you to all them and over the next couple of days I’ll show you how to deal with each of them… Here we go!

4 Controllable Culprits of Slow Open Water Swim Times:

1. Panic & Fear

You may be calm and comfortable in the pool but when you hit the open water you panic and get stressed out. Remove the ability to see the bottom and take away any walls and mentally you go into a downward spiral.

It’s an awful feeling. You find it hard to breathe and your heart feels like it’s pounding out of your chest. To survive you switch to breaststroke. You tread water, roll over onto your back. Anything to get save yourself! The goal is no longer fast swimming, now it’s survival… And you never had this problem in the pool!

2. Claustrophobia

If you’re like me you only have to share your lane with 1-2 people at your pool. Maybe you swim at a busy pool or train with a masters group where you have 5-6 people in a lane.

Whether it’s 1-2 or 5-6 it’s small compared to 100’s or 1000’s of people that line up at the start of most races.

  • Being swum over
  • Getting boxed in
  • Getting caught in traffic
  • Getting kicked in the face

These are the realities of a lot of triathlon swim starts. And it’s enough to break the rhythm and confidence of even the best pool swimmers. It will make you slower than you’ve been in the pool.

3. You Don’t Swim The Straightest Line

The quickest path between two points is a straight line.

If you are swimming off course and swimming further than you need to, you’re going to add seconds (or even minutes!) to your time. It’s not that you swam slower… but you did swim a slower time.

4. You Never Practiced in your Wetsuit

Swimming in a wetsuit is a different experience. Most triathletes LOVE their wetsuits. But the first time time you put it on after a long break it definitely feels weird.

Wetsuits can feel restrictive around your chest and shoulders. If you aren’t used to swimming in you it will cause your technique and breathing to change. The moment your technique changes so too will your speed!

2 Culprits of Slow Open Water Swim Times Out Of Your Control:

1. The Actual Swim Course Distance

Swim courses are very rarely measured exactly right.

A 25 or 50m pool will always be exactly the same length every time you swim in it. Temporary turn buoys put out on race day have a tendency to shift with currents and weather.

More often than not swim courses are a little longer or a little shorter than intended.

Looking at the time as you exit the water won’t always give you an accurate reflection of how fast you really swam.

2. The Weather Conditions

The pool environment is controlled and protected from the elements. The currents, wind and water temperature in open water can be rough and unpredictable.

The conditions in the water will play a major role in the pace you will hold and time you will finish your swim.

Identify which of these culprits is your biggest downfall on race day. Once you’ve done that we can systematically work to overcome each issue.

Over the next few days I’ll show you how to deal with each of these main culprits. By the end of the series you’ll have all the knowledge you need to be successful on race day.

Open Water swimming can be really challenging. If you have a question that will help you prepare to tackle the ocean, lake or river during their next open water workout, read the rest of the posts in this series or leave me a comment below.
~ Rory

Related Advice & Tips:

This post is part of a series on swimming well in open water. Read the rest of the posts in the series here:

Part 1: The Six Culprits Of Slow Open Water Times
Part 2: How To Prevent An Open Water Swim Panic Attack Before Race Day
Part 3: How To Stop A Triathlon Swim Panic Attack On Race Day
Part 4: How To Swim Straight In Open Water
Part 5: Wetsuit Tips For Open Water Swimming

You might also like...

8 thoughts on “Open Water Swimming Tip: Six Culprits Of Slow Open Water Times”

  1. Pingback: Triathlon Swimming: Wetsuit Tips For Open Water Swimming

  2. Pingback: Triathlon Swimming: How To Swim Straight In Open Water

  3. Pingback: How To Stop A Triathlon Swim Panic Attack Mid Swim On Race Day

  4. Pingback: Open Water Swim Panic Attack - How To Prevent It Before Race Day

  5. Karamvir Bindra

    I swim 1500 meters in 43 minutes inside a pool, I have still a lot to do to improve my technique. My aim is to finish 1900 meters in 1:10 in openwater(sea) Goa70.3 – 2019

    What can I do finish it within cut off time ?

    1. Hi Katie, thanks for the question. My suggestion:
      1. Work on the Balance Drill. A lot.
      2. Work on transitioning from the Balance Drill Position to swimming freestyle by going from a lying down position, body in a straight line, doing a couple of fast kicks (breaststroke or freestyle) and then getting your arms going.
      3. Practice both of those in the pool (a lot) before you execute it in the open water
      4. If you are still nervous about it on race day, stick to the back when the gun goes off so you don’t get swum over!

      Hope that helps you 😊

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *