How to Choose a Good First Open Water Race

So you think you’d like to try an open water race? In my part of the world, it’s race season; I have four races in three months. Some of those events are better suited for beginners than others, and if you have multiple options to choose from, you should take three criteria into account in picking your first race.

Note: I am assuming that you are a pool swimmer who’d like to experience competition in the Great Outdoors. But if you’re a triathlete who thinks it might be fun to swim a little farther and then go eat (without having to do all the cycling and running), this information might help you too, especially #3.

1) Experience

If this is your first race, pick an event that is not the organizers’ first race. It’s a lot of work to put on an open water swim. You need to mark the course, get all the safety equipment and personnel in place, arrange for water and food, have the timing system up and running, communicate with the swimmers — it’s a major undertaking. If you’re new, why not pick a race where you know the directors are experienced?

The one race that I do year after year is the Lowcountry Splash. It’s a beautiful course and a fast swim, but it’s also an extremely well-run event. The organizers communicate well with the swimmers, the course is well marked, and safety measures are visible at every stage.

Tired swimmers approaching the finish of the Lowcountry Splash being shepherded in by kayakers and paddleboarders. My photo. May 2015.
Kayakers and paddleboarders herding in tired swimmers as they approach the finish of the Lowcountry Splash, with the Ravenel Bridge in the background. My photo. May 2015.

The people running the Lowcountry Splash in Charleston have been doing it for fourteen years, and it shows. They know what they’re doing. Your first time out, surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing.

2) The course

Of course, you’re thinking about how far you’d like to swim: races come in all lengths, from 1K (you might even find a .5K) to 10 miles or more. But you need to think about more than just distance when choosing a race.

I live in an area where I can get to lakes, rivers, and the ocean relatively easily, and I’ve swum in all three. If you’re a pool swimmer transitioning to open water, you may want a lake swim for a first time. Unless it’s very windy, the water will be relatively calm. You won’t have to navigate a current or prepare for chafing in salt water.

I swam the Lake Lure Open Water Swim last weekend; the course is a straightforward one-mile loop (out along a straight line of yellow buoys, a turn, and back along a straight line of orange buoys) on a pretty little lake. It was not all that different from a swim in a pool — blown up much bigger and with a view of Rumbling Bald Mountain. I think it would make a great first race.

A river swim, if the course is uncomplicated and takes you downstream, can be a good first race too. Find out, though, if you’ll be swimming upstream or across a current, and think about whether you want to face those challenges on your first time out.

And if you love waves or if you’re living on the ocean and swimming there all the time, I don’t want to discourage you from an ocean swim. The Alcatraz Sharkfest swim in San Francisco Bay was my second open water race, and it was terrific. But keep in mind that ocean swims require careful attention to conditions; a swim that appears short becomes long when you are fighting the current and being tossed around by waves.

3) Race start

Swimming an open water race presents challenges beyond just swimming. You have to learn how to sight, that is, how to look at a buoy or landmark and aim for it. You have to learn how to pass people or to let people pass you. But the most challenging part of an open water race is the start. And because you can’t easily simulate start conditions in practice, it’s hard to prepare for them.

The most difficult kind of start is the mass start. I understand that it is the usual start in triathlons, which goes a long way to explain why so many triathletes don’t enjoy the swim. If you have hundreds of swimmers heading out in one big mob, either running in from the beach or treading water behind some line until a start horn is blown, people are going to get hit. People are going to get hit a lot.

If you enjoy mosh pits, go for a race with a mass start. But if your mosh pit days are past you, for your first time why not choose a race where swimmers head out in small waves — or even individually? At the Lake Lure Open Water Swim last week, we started from the beach in waves of fifteen. Last year at the Dam Swim for Drew, we went off a dock in groups of ten or fifteen.

Swimmers going off the dock at the Dam Swim for Drew 2014. Image from The State.

I would not recommend Swim the Loop for a complete beginner — it is a complicated course around an island and requires quite a bit of navigation — but they send swimmers off the dock one at a time, with a prize for the most exciting entry. CANNONBALL!


When you’re deciding on a first open water race, educate yourself about your options. Events will have websites and Facebook pages; they should have photos from past years and maps of the course. Find out how long the event has been going on, what the course is like, and how the start will be run. If you can’t find that information online, email the race director and ask.

You can’t prepare for everything. In fact, part of the fun of open water swimming is its unpredictability. In pool swimming, races are controlled and standardized; in open water swimming, conditions are fluid, and swimmers have to adapt. Nonetheless, you can choose an open water race that will be well suited to your preferences and abilities. Have fun out there!

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