Your First Open Water Swim, St. Louis Style

Of the three disciplines, for those of us in our region it tends to be the swim, and especially the open water swim (OWS), that seems the most foreign to us. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is simply that around here there seem to be more people with running backgrounds than cycling backgrounds, and more with cycling backgrounds than swimming backgrounds. And, let’s face it, there are not a lot of open water swimming opportunities around here, i.e., not a lot of lakes with public swimming facilities. We have rivers, but not generally the kind that one would swim in (the Mississippi and the Missouri in particular cannot be safely navigated by humans). For many of us, the last time we may have swam in the open water was church or youth camp – and we probably weren’t getting ready for a race.

This article is just to give you some background and basics on what to expect when you venture into the water for your first OWS. We won’t deal with the complexities of efficient open water swimming, sighting, and so forth. Plenty of mentoring and coaching opportunities for that!

Let’s break this down into it’s components, and start with what may be the oddest piece of attire you will ever wear:

The Wetsuit

Although this article isn’t about racing per se, it helps to understand the relationship between the wetsuit and racing. So, naturally, I’ll start right off with a digression.

First, a little bit about the “when” of wearing the wetsuit for the purpose of racing, and let’s clear up some terminology confusion: “Wetsuit required”, “Wetsuit legal”, and “Wetsuit prohibited”.

First of all, remember that a triathlon wetsuit has one official purpose: protecting your internal organs from the cold. The fact that it happens to be buoyant is incidental to that purpose.

When is a wetsuit required? Very, very seldom. There are some races with predictably cold water temperatures where the race directors will require the wearing of a wetsuit. An example is Superior Man (Duluth Bay in Lake Superior). Escape from Alcatraz (San Francisco Bay) is a race in which a wetsuit is “highly recommended” (i.e., take a hint).

To the best of my knowledge, there are no wetsuit required races in the Saint Louis region.

So what is wetsuit legal? Simply put, this is defined by an upper water temperature limit. When the water temperature is at or below this limit, you may optionally wear a wetsuit and be eligible for awards, qualifications, and so forth. What that latter part means will be a little more apparent as you read on.

What is that temperature? Depends on a couple of things. The limit will be different if you are a pro vs an age grouper. Pro tip: if you are a pro, you probably aren’t reading this, but the pro rules may also apply to elite, youth, and Under 23 divisions. it will depend on what set of rules you are racing under: USAT, WTC (Ironman™), or ITU. As I type this (May, 2017), here are those temperatures for us age groupers:

  • USAT: Up to and including 78 degrees F
  • WTC: Up to and including 76.1 degrees F
  • ITU: Up to and including 71.6 degrees F (1500m and less), 76.3 ( more than 1500m)

Always check the rules for your specific race! These will be made available by the race director. Those rules will always take precedence over anything that you read anywhere else.

Non-wetsuit legal: This term is often used to refer to temperatures above wetsuit legal, but below a wetsuit prohibited limit. In this non-wetsuit legal band, but less than the wetsuit prohibited limit, you may wear a wetsuit, but will not be eligible for awards, etc. There will sometimes be a special start wave for swimmers in this category. These are the wetsuit prohibited limits as of May 2017:

  • USAT: Greater than or equal to 84 degrees F
  • WTC: Greater than 83.8 degrees F
  • ITU: Not applicable (no wetsuits above the wetsuit legal limit)

Why is there a wetsuit prohibited temperature? Remember that the primary purpose of the wetsuit is to keep your internal organs warm in cool water. At water temperatures above 84 degrees or so, exerting yourself in that suit will result in your overheating.

So, the most typical rules being USAT, breaks down like this:

  • Temperature less than or equal to 78 degrees: Wetsuit legal. You have the option of wearing a wetsuit.
  • Temperature greater than 78 degrees but less than or equal to 84 degrees: Non-wetsuit legal, or “not wetsuit legal”. You may still chose to wear a wetsuit, but you will not be eligible for awards, you essentially are a non-competitor.
  • Temperature greater than 84 degrees: wetsuit prohibited. You may not wear a wetsuit.

Why does 60 degree in the water feel so cold?

This is a frequent question. 60 degrees is comfortable in the air – when running, it is nearly ideal for most folks – but it feels quite cool when it’s 60 degree water. What’s going on? It’s actually a pretty simple answer: air is an insulator but water is a conductor. Remember, bulky clothing keeps you warm by trapping air pockets. So the insulation of air helps your body retain heat. But water is a conductor, so it literally pulls that heat away from you (if you’re not in 98.6 degree water, the heat will flow away from you).

So at what temperatures should I wear a wetsuit?

Within the rules stated above, it becomes a matter of personal preference. Especially for beginners, there is a consideration of how fast of a swimmer you are. For the less experienced, swimmers who are still developing form, the wetsuit may improve your speed, basically due to their buoyancy (and this is why there are limits on how thick a racing wetsuit can be). The improvement, if any, is much less for proficient swimmers and is why skilled swimmers will tend to go without the wetsuit more often, because they would lose more time in transition to take it off than they would gain in improvement in swim time. You will need to sort that out yourself with experience.

Beyond that, it comes down to comfort level. For example, I am a notoriously slow swimmer, so on the high end, I will wear a wetsuit whenever it is wetsuit legal (so up to about 76-78 degrees depending on the race rules, as we saw). I happen to have two wetsuits, one that is sleeveless and one with sleeves (which are armlength). So from experience, I will go down to about 63 degrees with the sleeveless, and below that, go with the sleeves. If it starts getting below 59 or so, I’ll add a heavier neoprene cap under the race-provided swim cap, and much below that I’ll be thinking about wearing booties, which also have race-specific limitations on when they can be worn.

Earplugs: Some people find themselves disoriented for a bit after finishing an OWS and getting up out of the water. (I have a hypothesis that, unlike pool swimming, you aren’t constantly making turns, so the sudden change to standing after being prone can mess your inner ear up a bit.) Some people find that wearing earplugs in OWS tends to help them destabilize. But for your first ever OWS? If you’re not used to earplugs already, this might make you feel a little more isolated than you want. Of course, you can always start with them pop the things out. Experiment!

When do I wear a wetsuit around St. Louis?

This is as good of place to address this as any! Understand, everything here is trends (duh – it involves weather) and in most cases the personal preference we discussed above. In short: pretty much beginning and end of season, and not so much in the middle. You can actually race the entire local season without a wetsuit, but for training, it can be a bit cool in the early part of the training season.

  • End of April through May – You are probably starting your OWS season with the Big Shark New Town Open Water Swim Series which, weather permitting, historically begins at the end of April or beginning of May. These are nearly always cooler, low ’60’s or even high ’50’s. The races through May – Gateway and St. Louis Triathlon for example, will generally be wetsuit legal.
  • June – The weather starts warming up, and races may be either wetsuit legal or non-legal. The Innsbrook Ultramax triathlons are in this timeframe.
  • July through August – Almost never wetsuit legal. MIGHT reach wetsuit prohibited depending on the depth of the body of water (and, of course, the weather). This would include New Town, Lake St. Louis and the Route 66/Iron Abe/Stoneman races.
  • September – The local season wraps up in September. These races are typically wetsuit legal and include the Litchfield Triathlou.

The MSE Racing Open Water Swim Series at Simpson Lake begins the first week of July and goes to mid September. Even in July and August, you may see some people swimming in wetsuits. Why is that? Many athletes will be training for later season races or races in northern climates where a wetsuit legal swim would be the norm. So it would be a situation of training the same way you race.

So… what about this first swim?

If you are new to the sport, and got started up during the past winter, there is a good chance that you will have your first OWS experience at one of the Big Shark New Town Open Water Swim Series swims on Saturday mornings. So let’s talk about a few things to expect, some general and some specific to these swims.

As you arrive –

  • Try to get there in plenty of time. The first time I went, I was expecting to see a card table to sign in and about ten people getting in the lake. Far from it, indeed it seems every triathlete in the area will be there to make use of the swim opportunity as well as gathering to bike afterwards!
  • Before I forget – obey parking restrictions and try to keep the noise down, it’s a residential area and we don’t want to lose the opportunity to do these swims.
  • There are wetsuit rentals available and generally, for the first couple of sessions, the rental will be included in the fee for the swim. There will be folks there to help you get into the thing (more on that below). Pay attention as they explain it to you, this is valuable experience!

Getting the wetsuit on –

  • You will generally have help and mentoring available, but here are a few tips worth seeing more than once.
  • Zipper goes in back. You WILL forget this at least once!
  • It’s a good idea to coat the following areas with a product like Body Glide or Tri Slide: Your ankles and calves, arms if you have a wetsuit with full sleeves, and the area behind the back of the neck. This is both for chafing reduction and for ease of getting in and out of the suit.
  • You start by getting your legs into the suit. A really good idea is to put your foot (and later, your hand when you put on the sleeves) into a small shopping bag. This makes it easier to slide on the suit.
  • You really need to make this thing tight in the crotch area. If you don’t, you will be punished when you put on the rest of the suit, as it will pull down on your shoulders. If you get the crotch pulled up tight, you will be rewarded with freedom to move your arms.
  • You can tear the suit if you try to pull it up by just grabbing it into a bunch. And watch those fingernails! The best way to pull it up is to put one hand inside the suit and the other outside the suit, press your hands together, and pull up.
  • Some people are able to pull up their own zippers, other are not. I can’t. It’s common for triathletes to help each other out on zipping the zipper, and fastening the zipper lanyard. The zipper lanyard allows you to reach around and pull the zipper when you finish the swim and are on your way transition when racing. You’ll see the lanyard loop trick so I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that there are two velcro pieces where you close up the back of the neck, and the end of the lanyard fits conveniently in between them.

So what have we got now?

  • You just used a whole boatload of energy to get this thing on. If it’s warm, you may have worked up a sweat. The running joke is that we use more energy in putting on the suit than we do actually swimming!
  • The suit will be decidedly uncomfortable. Part of this is that it will loosen up on you a bit as you get moving and, well, producing more fluid while you are inside the suit. But more importantly, it really isn’t designed to be walked around upright; it feels better when you are horizontal and in the water.

OK, let’s get in the water –

  • As in most OWSes, you will be checked off (you’ll have a number assigned to you and marked on your hand) as you get in line to get in the water, and you will be checked in when you get back out.
  • The area where you enter the water for the New Town OWS’es is a bit rocky, so be prepared for that. (Edit: In 2018, the swim start has been moved, my recollection is that the footing is better at the new location.)
  • If you walk gradually into the water, you’ll be thinking “wow, this suit is cozy, it really keeps the water out”. This is true – until you get to the zipper, which is not water proofed. This is a wetsuit, not a drysuit. But the thin layer of water that works its way in will be quickly warmed up, due to being trapped between your 98.6 degree body and the rubber of the wetsuit.
  • (edit) You should take the opportunity, before you start swimming to stick your face in the water and blow bubbles! Do this a couple of times. This will help keep you relaxed (read: lower heart rate) as you start swimming. I also prefer to dunk my whole body in before I start swimming. Not that I ENJOY that -nobody enjoys the acclimating part! – but it does help me prep before starting to swim.
  • <edit> As your body warms up during the swim, of the water is on the cooler side you may notice some stinging in your exposed extremities. It happens! At this point, about all you can say is that you aren’t really doing this whole thing with the idea of being totally comfortable. 🙂
  • There are maps of the course available, and you’ll be told which direction (clockwise or counterclockwise) to go, this changes from week to week.
  • The “bay” area where you enter the water may be used, if you are new to this, to just getting used to the suit and the whole open water thing. You usually have the option to swim to and from the first buoy.
  • If you swim the course, you stay close to the shore and can basically reach shallow water very quickly at any time. You may NOT cut across the course (through the middle of the lake) except as specifically shown on the course map.
  • There are only three professional OWS life guard companies in the US, one on each coast and one in St Louis. Backyard Lifeguards supports these swims, with guards on the shore and in kayaks at key points. Now sometime to be aware of – all strokes are legal in triathlon, including the backstroke. It is common for people to rest for a bit by rollover onto their back. Recognizing that this floating on the back could be a sign of fatigue, if you do so, a lifeguard will ask you if you are OK. So just be prepared for that and understand why they are checking on you.
  • This is something you may find unexpected – you might be looking down at your hand as you take a stroke, and not be able to see it! Missouri is what is known as a “black water state”. The particulate matter in the water is so fine in this part of the country that it stays in suspension. So, you will generally have limited visibility underwater here as opposed to other regions you may swim in.

How do you feel?

One last parting piece of advice, and this is important. This may be the most outside of your comfort zone you have been in a long time. It’s OK! Take stock of three things that are going on here:

  1. As noted in the beginning, if you are an adult, there is an excellent chance that you have not been swimming in open water for years – and when you did, it was more playing around, not getting ready for a race.
  2. The wetsuit feels like nothing else you’ve worn before. It intentionally is a snug fit. You might even find it claustrophobic at first, given everything else that is going on. It may take awhile to get used to. Try to take it easy this first time out and climate yourself to the feel of the suit.
  3. To top everything off, since it’s spring, this may be among the coolest water you get into!

So, to recap – the OWS is one of the more iconic and unusual aspects to triathlon. It might take some getting used to, but stick with – it will get better and become second nature in nearly no time!

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