Endurance sports rarely lend themselves to spontaneity. If you want to push your body to its physical limits, you need to train. If you want to have a successful race day, it helps to go in with a plan you know you can execute to reach your goals—unless your race day includes time in open water.

“I tell [athletes] to throw their swim plan right out the window, because that’s the logical approach,” Steve Hernan, founder and coach of Open Water Chicago, says. “Hardcore endurance athletes, everyone’s got a plan going in and that’s great, but that goes out the window as soon as you get in the water because the logical part of your brain and sometimes the emotional part of your brain shuts down, and you have to manage it from a physical level.”

“You have to be more flexible in open water,” Craig Strong of Precision Multipart says. “You can’t control the environment and can’t control the situation you’re in. You want to have a good time, but you need to relax on that as well. If it’s your first swim, you’re feeling it out more than going for time.”

For first timers, this need to adapt on a dime can cause stress and anxiety. Swimming in open water, particularly in Lake Michigan, requires a willingness to adapt to ever-changing conditions. The water temperature can drop or rise dramatically overnight, winds can whip up waves, and swimming in a race can include getting kicked, grabbed or bumped. While you cannot predict what will happen on race day, you can prepare for a variety of situations both in the lake and in the pool.

Water cloudiness and the lack of lines at the bottom of the lake can disorient new open water swimmers, John Fitzgerald of the Chicago Blue Dolphins says. To help train his swimmers to stay on course without the guiding aids of a pool, he uses a technique called blind swimming.

“I have people close their eyes with their face in the water, and they figure out where they’re going by picking their head up every five to six strokes to look to see where they’re at,” he says. “If they’re off on one side, they’ll adjust. The objective is to stay in the middle of the lane.”

Strong uses a similar technique, which swimmers can also practice in open water by having another person stand 20 yards away, closing their eyes, and attempting to swim to the other person. Doing this, he says, helps swimmers learn how often they need to pick their head up out of the water.

The water temperature can also cause problems for first time open water swimmers, since the temperature in Lake Michigan can easily drop below what you usually find in a gym pool.

“The last thing you want to do is jump into a 60-degree body of water without ever having experienced that before,” MJ Gasik of Tri Right Coaching says. “You can go into shock. Hypothermia is real, wetsuit or not. You start to hyperventilate because it’s such a temperature change. You start breathing heavy, coughing, your heart rate is up, and you start to think you can’t do it.”

Getting in the lake and practicing before race day will help you understand how your body reacts to cold water so you can mentally prepare for the physiological response you’ll experience. Swimming in the lake will also give you a chance to get used to swimming in a wetsuit: another potential source of discomfort for those new to open water swimming, according to Fitzgerald.

“Generally speaking, a wetsuit is a good thing and helps out a lot of people, but they’re supposed to fit tight and to a lot of people, it feels like they’re wearing a sausage casing,” Fitzgerald says. “The combination of not being able to see where you need to go, cold water, and this tight thing around you can be problematic. I always recommend that people get out into the lake and practice swimming in their wetsuit so they get that feeling of what it’s going to be like in open water.”

While you ideally will have practice sessions in open water, you don’t have to neglect the pool entirely while training for a triathlon or swim event in Lake Michigan. Pools allow you to focus on your technique, Fitzgerald adds, and if you train with a group, your group might have the flexibility to set up the pool in a way that helps mimic some aspects of open water swimming.

“One thing I do with my masters swimmers is we do some practices in the pool where we take the lane lines out and then have everybody do a big circle around the pool to emulate an open water swim,” Gasik says. “Yes, it’s still regulated temperature and you can still see, but now the safety of the lane lines is gone. You need to be able to swim straight and need to be able to navigate around other people.”

Though perhaps intimidating and scary at first, with practice, awareness and a willingness to go with the flow, swimming in open water can introduce you to a whole other side of endurance sports.

“I tell this to everybody, that I’m my own example,” Hernan says. “I got a late start, plowed through and figured this stuff out. Anybody can do this if you understand what’s going on externally in that environment, the dynamics of it and understand what’s going on internally and make those adjustments.”

Gear Recommendations

  • Wetsuit
  • Mirrored goggles for swimming into the sun (with optical lenses if you need vision correction)
  • SaferSwimmer, a personal buoy bag with storage for small items that can serve as a flotation device if necessary
  • Neoprene caps and booties for additional coverage in cold water
  • Raw shea butter to cover exposed skin in cold water

Where to Train

  • Ohio Street Beach, 600 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Labor Day
  • Centennial Beach, 500 Jackson Avenue, Naperville, Hours vary: check centennialbeach.org for details
  • Harold Hall Quarry Beach, 400 S. Water Street, Batavia, Open 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Aug. 13
  • Lake Andrea, 9900 Terwell Terrace, Pleasant Prairie, WI, Hours vary: check recplexonline.com for details


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