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Rich Dafter

Worst Case Scenarios In Open Water Swimming

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Every athlete ever to skid, stumble, or crawl across a finish line has a race-day horror story to share. Triathletes and cyclists recall getting a flat or going down on the road. Runners compare notes on excruciating cramps, blisters, and shin splints.

But perhaps the most anxiety-inducing tales come from swimmers, who live in constant fear of experiencing their worst open-water moments again and again.

Lots can go wrong in the water; after all, we evolved to live comfortably on land. From losing a pair of goggles at the start of a race to experiencing a debilitating cramp in deep water, swimmers have it rough.

Below is a list of the most common open water “Worst Case Scenarios,” and how you can prevent them from occurring — or at least cope with them should they come up in competition.

Ways to avoid having a “worst case” scenario become your “worst race” scenario

1. Losing your goggles

Nothing is more dispiriting than rushing into the water at the sound of a starting gun to have your goggles snap off. It’s happened to the best of us, and although it’s rare, it can be the death-knell for one’s racing goals (not to mention one’s contact lenses if you wear them).

Always make sure to inspect your goggles the night before your race. Pull the straps gently and look for small tears and ripples that indicate wear and tear, especially at the clips where the straps are secured.

Often, you will find that straps can look shiny and new while showing signs of deterioration at the seams and buckles near the eyepiece. If so, get another pair of goggles and adjust them before you go to sleep; the following race-day morning will be hectic and nerve-wracking, so you won’t want to think about preparing a new pair of goggles to fit just right.

Remember that sun, chlorine, and moisture all add to the elements that can cause a strap to break, so take care to keep your goggles dry and wrapped in a towel when not in use.

It is not uncommon to see extra-paranoid swimmers bringing a spare pair of goggles with them during a race (around their neck, wedged into their swimsuits, or even tied around their ankles!). While this is a surefire way to add insurance to your race experience, it is highly unnecessary and cumbersome. Goggles around your neck are dangerous (choking hazard), and all other options are nothing more than dead weight.

One is much better off anticipating a “Worst Case Scenario” and being prepared for it: Try swimming without your goggles, and accustom yourself to opening your eyes under water. Such drills are invaluable to your confidence should the unexpected occur, and you will be able to cope with such an unforeseen circumstance without sacrificing your entire event.

2. Getting a cramp

Leg cramps while swimming are very common among triathletes, most often striking the calves. This is because triathletes are predominantly lower-body athletes whose legs — by virtue of their defined musculature and overall training fatigue — are more prone to muscle spasms in the water as their less-flexible legs flay stiffly back and forth.

One obvious preventative measure is to practice lots of stretching, not just before your race but throughout the season. Leg flexibility is relative, and triathletes are habitually less flexible than swimmers. Concentrate on ankle flexibility so that you are able to point your toes on the down-kick of your kick cycle; often, triathletes kick incorrectly with their feet at a 90 degree angle to their shins, contributing to the likelihood of a calf cramp while adding extra drag.

Potassium is known to prevent cramps. If you don’t take supplements or eat bananas regularly, that could be your answer if you’re known to suffer from exercise-induced cramps.

Should a cramp occur during a race, do not panic. Be aware that you are experiencing one and stop swimming. Tread water and slowly try rotating your foot at the ankle to work out the cramp (if it occurs in your calf). Oftentimes you can stop a cramp with this approach. The severe cases occur when an athlete panics and tenses up all muscles in the body, resulting in further muscle contractions and convulsions.

3. Your swim cap tears/falls off

It may not seem like the end of the world, but to a swimmer with long hair, losing her cap is a miserable experience. In addition, a swimmer whose cap falls off usually loses her goggles too, since goggles traditionally go over the cap.

Obviously, an easy solution to this potential problem is to wear your hair short if you compete in open water. You can (and should) still wear a cap, for warmth and easy identification by race officials. But the longer your hair, the more likely it is to get in your eyes (or worse, your mouth) should your cap rip or slip back on your head. A tight ponytail tied with elastic will at least keep the hair from spreading across your face if you insist on keeping it long

You might consider putting your goggles on under your cap, a unique technique favored by open-water champ Dawn Heckman. This prevents you from losing your goggles should your cap unexpectedly fall off.

I personally never like to wear a brand-new cap on race day. This is because new caps have not been stretched out by a few prior uses, and are thus more likely to slip off the first time they are worn.

Conversely, it is important not to wear a cap you have been wearing for a few weeks, as it could be stretched out to the point of being loose enough to fall off. If the race rules don’t require mandatory color-coded and pre-supplied caps, choose one you have worn a few times that fits snugly but not too tight. Make sure to inspect it along the seam for tiny cracks that could turn into tears.

4. Brand-new blisters

As devoted cross-trainers, we sometimes end up with cross-training injuries. Most common (and annoying) among these is the fresh running blister that pops open in the water, resulting in that loose bit of skin that burns and flaps every time it gets wet.

While some may hesitate to even call this an “injury,” anyone who has ever swum with an open blister in salt water can attest that it is excruciatingly painful, maddening, and distracting.

Band-Aids are seldom effective, as they slip off within moments of entering the water (especially if you are kicking aggressively). However, a Band Aid wrapped with water-proof tape has worked for me in the past (I’ve wrapped the tape around my entire foot bridge, or toe, depending on the location of the blister).

Second Skin is a great solution if your blister is a few days old. This product, which you apply to the blister with a small brush, dries over the wound creating a “second skin,” allowing you the freedom of a painless foray into the water. This product should only be used if the blister is a few days old, as the label suggests.

Remember to monitor your blister in the days before a race and snip off the dead skin surrounding it prior to competition. Although it is never recommended to cut away the skin soon after the blister pops (that may result in infection), after a few days it is safe.

While it still may sting underneath, the removal of the loose skin will eliminate the distracting “flapping” you might feel under water.

5. Chafing

Chafing is the most easily overlooked “Worst Case Scenario” that undoubtedly can cause the most grief. Chafing occurs in salt water, where areas of your body rub together and create “sports hickeys” that can last for days (and sting throughout the rest of your event).

Common chafing areas are the underarms, neck, and around swimsuit straps and openings. Chafing also occurs if you wear a wetsuit, mostly around the neck or armpits.

Vaseline is an easy solution to chafing, and any serious open-water swimmer never packs a swim bag without it. A small amount rubbed around the susceptible areas is all you need to avoid chafing, though Vaseline is not recommended if you use a wetsuit (the petroleum jelly can damage the rubber and cause it to deteriorate over time).

There is a great wetsuit-friendly lubricant on the market that triathletes and surfers swear by, called BodyGlide. Found in most sporting goods stores and surf shops, BodyGlide works as well as Vaseline, without the greasy residue. It also comes in a convenient roll-on stick (like anti-perspirant), with none of the mess that results from the manual application that Vaseline requires.

6. Waves

Open-water swims in the ocean can be a lot more frightening should you face a set of 10-foot shorebreak when the gun goes off (and any sensible race director will consider postponing the race should that occur).

In the event that you find yourself facing down a Perfect Storm-sized behemoth of salt-water force, your first instinct may be to swim over it.


The smartest way to avoid a breaking wave is to dive directly under it. If possible, dive to the bottom and pull yourself forward by grabbing the sand. This serves two purposes: one, it lets the wave pass overhead and safely keeps you out of range of its pull; and two, it allows you to use the ocean floor as leverage to pull yourself forward while less-seasoned competitors get whitewashed and thrown back.

As frightening as waves look, their bark is always bigger than their bite from the oncoming swimmer’s point of view. Underneath, however, the water is quiet and still, and ideal for bypassing the rush above.

Of course, the above “Worst Case Scenarios” seem rather quaint for those swimmers who may have encountered a shark or Portuguese Man-Of-War. However, they are common horror stories that require very little of you should you wish to avoid them in the future.

Pre-awareness is the most important step in avoiding these pratfalls and having a great race.

If you have a Worst Case Scenario that you'd like to share with readers, e-mail Alex for a future story!

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