5 Lessons from Open Water Swimming

Last Saturday I continued my open water swim training in preparation for both Take the Rock and Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz. The fog burned off and revealed stunning views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and Marin County.

A screenshot of my open water swimming route from Aquatic Park to Fort Mason and back,
My group swam out to Fort Mason and back, creeping underneath the piers of the defunct Army base for a total of 2.2 miles. This was my third swim sans wetsuit, but because previous swims left me a bit hypothermic I was wearing a brand new neoprene swim cap. It was much warmer, but I discovered that while my mind was up to the task, my body was not.

Though trying to push it, I still fell behind the pack on our return to Aquatic Park. As in previous swims going “skins,” I could not warm up or stop shivering. Our experienced coaches noticed I was a bit further along in the stages of hypothermia than I was aware of and invited me to warm up in the South End Rowing Club sauna. After fifteen minutes I warmed up and began to feel human once more.


Me standing in the San Francisco Bay after open water swimming.


I started thinking over the weekend about my motivations for  ditching the warmth of the suit and it led to some reflection on what I’ve learned so far in my fourth season of open water swimming.


  1. Start slowly and let the boy warm up the aerobic system. Going too fast too soon can leave a swimmer gasping for breath and having a feeling of never quite being able to catch up. The shock of the cold can lead one to start sprinting and make their open water swimming an awful experience.
  2. Focus on technique. I remember going much harder the first two years of swimming,  approaching it like a crossfit workout. Through patient coaching from the Nadadores Locos  and Kerry O’Brien of Walnut Creek Masters I discovered half of that energy was making slowing me down by adding drag and resistance. The density of water exposes flawed technique much more readily than in running or cycling. Open water swimming is generally longer distance swimming, so improvements in technique are exponential.
  3. A few pounds of insulation an go a long way. A few open water swim blogs have confirmed this. It seems the sacrifice many accomplished cold water swimmers have made to keep themselves warm during long swims. My choice to strive for lower BMI for running and cycling efficiency means I need more time to acclimate to lower temperatures in the ocean. Or I can wear a wetsuit. This segues quite nicely to my fourth point.
  4. Be humble and listen (see also: coachable). My biggest gains in swimming have come from letting a coach point out the flaws in my stroke. I naturally resist listening and much of my life has been sung to the tune of “I got this…..okay I don’t but I’m not open to criticism.” This is an exhibition of ego defenses if there ever was one. It’s also a huge waste of time. Learn why you suck so you won’t suck.
  5. All is right with the universe after a good swim. A better body-high there is not and this is especially true following a swim in cold water. Many times I have sat on the steps of Aquatic Park basking in the sense of alert calmness, vitality, and contentment radiating through my body. I love running and cycling, but something about being in cold water speaks to my soul in a way few things do.


View of Aquatic Park and the Golden Gate Bridge from the amphitheater bleachers after open water swimming.


Learn more about Take the Rock  on our website. 

Author: mike

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One thought on “5 Lessons from Open Water Swimming

  1. Yes sir. Keep tabs. The body changes. Somes years I am amazed. I’m ripping it, seems I can endure any cold. Other times have to work slowly up to a previous level.

    50 degrees will get anyone, especially if it’s been a while since you swam the bay.

    I definitely will be there to encourage y’all this year.

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