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GRADUATING FROM POOL TO OCEAN, Alex Kostich posted 2/1/01
Alex is not a TEAM member, but is a friend and one of the premier ocean swimmers in the world. He has been a member of the U.S. National Team for eight years, was a triple Pan American games gold medalist and is holder of six Masters world records. His article was also printed in Triathlete Magazine in November, 1999.

The sharks were unmistakable. Two large shovel-headed creatures, side by side, lying calmly in wait as I swam over them, my hands passing a few inches from their slightly agape mouths. By the time I realized what I saw, it was too late. I had swum over them, and in a flash, they were gone, behind me. And I was only halfway through a 13-mile ocean race.

Ocean swimming is not for the faint-hearted, but then again, if you’re reading this article, chances are “faintheartedness” is not in your vocabulary. As a former triathlete battling a severe running injury, long-distance ocean swimming has been a way for me to stay in shape, improve my cardiovascular conditioning and endurance levels and challenge myself in new and exciting ways.

Given most people are like fish out of water when they’re in the water, it’s doubtful I’ll convince most of you to take your swimming more seriously, to the point of giving up other sports for a 40k swim around Long Island in October. But some of you may find yourselves in a situation like I did, where a doctor’s order prohibits running, or even where the simple circumstance of burnout takes hold. You’ll do virtually anything for a change of pace - even if it is swimming for insanely long distances.

For starters, preparing for an ocean swim of any length is no “going for a dip on a hot day”. Regardless of your swimming proficiency, anything can happen out there in the deep blue sea, and you need to be ready.

Salt beats chlorine

My first ocean swim was one mile long, and having been a world-ranked pool swimmer for over a decade, I figured I had my competitors beat by a long shot. After nearly drowning at the start and struggling to get past the 8-foot wave set that body-slammed me back to shore, I ended up bloodied and humbled… and second to a guy of whom I had never heard. It was then I realized that no amount of training in a warm, cozy, fresh-water pool would do me much good. So I began entering more ocean races and peppering my weekly workout schedule with trips to the beach. Doing workouts, either long swims or sprints, in rough waters was an exhausting, challenging and exhilarating way to work out, and after 20 years of pool workouts it was a much-needed, invigorating shot in the arm. Where a really good workout used to mean swimming two intense (but dull) hours of laps, my new ocean workouts would leave me spent after 45 minutes.

Ocean training is a must

If you’re planning to complete an ocean swim of three to five miles, it is imperative you spend time training in the ocean for at least a month or two prior to your race. Try swimming in open water at least once a week during the summer months, as more exposure will help your physical stamina and mental confidence. An effective ocean workout can be as simple as swimming at least half the distance of your goal-race at medium pace, a few times a week. While it is difficult to do sprints or sets in the ocean, practicing shore entries and exits on an interval is comparable to a pool set, and can only help your open water experience. Training outdoors with a few buddies also is a really fun (and safer) way to improve your skills and remain competitive.

Adapt to chilly waters

Besides altering your training to spend more time in the ocean, another major component to open water success is to mentally prepare yourself for the task at hand. Water temperature can test the mental toughness of the most seasoned athlete, and that goes for warm water as well as cold. Get used to swimming in water cooler than the standard 79-degree pool temperature. Challenge yourself to swim without a wetsuit once in a while; not all races permit them, and you will be at a mental advantage over your more pampered counterparts since you will not be dependent on a wetsuit for flotation or warmth.

Prepare for the worst

Also, be mentally prepared for the worst. Ever wake up screaming from a nightmare about losing your goggles at the start of a race? Trust me, it will happen sooner or later, so try a workout in the ocean without them. If you know the feeling and expect it to happen, it won’t be the end of the world when it does. Afraid of getting slammed by a big wave during entry? Force yourself to practice entries (and exits) during a big set, and dare to get tossed around a bit. The more accustomed you get to being out of control, the less disorienting it will be when you’re in a race and a wave not only knocks you down, but takes your goggles along with it.