I've written a several articles for my friends at Max Performance, the triathlon company.  Here are a few, and some resources for additional information:

Vagus, Baby, Vagus...
As we’re about to take the plunge into cold water swimming, I thought it would be prudent to talk about the vagus nerve.  You see, the vagus nerve, which has a function in both our respiratory and cardiovascular systems is related to that feeling of panic we all get when we submerge our heads in very cold water.  

Every swimmer (myself included) has that ‘take your breath away’ feeling when our heads are submerged in cold water.  Anatomically, your vagus nerve is telling your heart to slow down to protect your body from the cold.  Simultaneously, your lungs are trying to get in more oxygen.  Now, add adrenaline.  The vagus nerve is trying to calm you down, adrenaline is having none of that, your lungs are asking for more air, there are tons of people around … suddenly you feel you are going to drown.  Sound familiar? 

Happily, it’s preventable.  Step one: put your face/head completely in the water before the start.  Ideally, you should get in the water before you start the swim.  You should acclimate to the cold.  Step two: take time once you get started to calm your breathing.  Step three: dress for success.  Wetsuits are nearly essential at these temps (I met someone who’s allergic, she’s the only person who should be swimming ‘naked’), I also suggest booties, a silicone cap or neoprene hood (I personally don’t like hoods – they can chafe and I feel choked) under your race cap.

Once you get out of the water, you’ll face some unique challenges.  Your hands will be cold and you’ll probably have the shivers.  I've found the following helpful:
1)Warm water – pour a little on your hands, and suddenly you’re able to buckle your helmet!
2)Something warm to drink – it’ll stave off the shivers.  At a race you might think about decaf tea, broth, hot water with lemon and honey, etc. 
3)Dress for success (again).  Know your cold-tolerance and get the right gear for the bike. 

I hope this helps you have a successful cold-water triathlon.  Remember the Golden Rule of triathlons:  never tri anything race-day that you didn’t perfect in practice!

Here is an article with some sciency stuff about this experience:


Early and Often….
When swimming in open water, it’s important to look where you’re going.  People are often shocked that they swim off-course when they lose the lane line.  “I swim so straight in the pool.”  As I tell my clients, the pool is cheat.  The black lines give you a false sense of security.  You THINK you swim straight because you’re following that little black line.  The truth is, no one is physically balanced, so when you get out in open water you’ll veer to your strong side.  Hence, you need to sight early and often. 

Added benefit: looking where you are going assists in navigating the traffic or ‘washing machine’ of the mass of people from your swim wave. 

End result: less time in the water.  Whether you’re a confident swimmer who’s using the swim to get yourself an advantage, or a novice who’s simply hoping to survive the water; the faster your swim, the better. 

There are two things to keep in mind when sighting.  First, you are not searching for Moby Dick on the horizon.  You are popping your head up and taking a glimpse of your surroundings to make sure you are on track.  Remember, the buoys are large and usually brightly colored.  Your goal is to pop-up, make sure you’re on track, and get moving again.  Second, know the route.  As the sun rises, you could lose the buoys in the sun.  As a result, you should check out the swim prior to the start of the race to establish land-marks beyond the buoys.  These will help you maintain a straight line. 

There are two main sighting methods. 
Recovery strokes.  If you are a less confident swimmer, and/or are having an anxiety issue and need to adjust your breathing, recovery strokes can both help you look where you‘re going and get your head out of the water to help you get your breathing under control. 

Breast stroke.   My sister gave me a great way to teach the breast stroke pull.  Using your entire arms, scrape the cookie dough out of the bowl, put the dough in your mouth, and push the bowl away with your hands down. 

Side stroke.  If you imagine you are in an orchard, stretch your hands out and pick apples with both hands, then bring the apples (with your hands facing towards your body) to a basket at your waste.

Lifeguard look.  This is a more advanced way of looking where you’re going.  It takes a bit of energy, so you should practice this often.  The best way to implement this is to incorporate it into your breath.  Doing so will maintain your rotation and efficient body position.  If you are breathing to the right, to execute a lifeguard look, push down with your left hand, use your glutes and lower back to pull up, and kick a bit to give you a boost.  Do NOT use your neck to pull your head up, as it’ll put undo strain on your neck. 

I worked with my friends at Max Performance to create this video to illustrate these sighting methods. 

Go Both Ways...
People new to swimming learn to breathe to their strong side – left or right and this is completely natural.  But, it’s important to learn to bilateral breathe (breathing to both sides) for several reasons. 
First, many people have breathing problems.  One reason is breathing rhythm.  It takes a while to learn your breathing rhythm.  Many of you feel exhausted (partially because your land cardio hasn’t yet translated to the water – patience is a virtue, it’ll come) because you haven’t worked out this rhythm.  Learning to change your breathing patterns (from one side to bilateral) will give you more options.  Remember to breathe out completely using both nose and mouth and take a quick breath in. 

Second, breathing to only one side creates an imbalance in both your stroke and your body.  We all swim with a drag to one side.  You don’t notice it much in the pool, but it becomes very evident in open water, as we all know.  Breathing to one side exaggerates this drag, which lengthens your time in the water (not your preference, I assume?). 

Third, bilateral breathing helps you navigate your way through the water.  Buoys are not always on the same side.  If they are on the opposite side from which you breathe, it’ll make it harder for you to see where you’re going.  Sighting slows you down a bit, and takes a fair bit of energy.  Using your breathing to keep you on track will bring you to the end of your swim more easily. 

Lastly, the ocean provides special challenges.  I had a horrible experience when doing the Alcatraz swim several years ago.  I kept breathing into the waves: dumb-dumb that I am, I was bilateral breathing out of habit and the mouthfuls of water didn’t disabuse me of the habit!  If you are swimming in the ocean and can only breathe to the surf side … ‘nuff said?  

I’ve found that about.com has great articles on any swimming topic I’ve read.  This is a wonderful one on breathing: http://swimming.about.com/od/freeandback/a/breath_freestyl.htm

I also have a great video on breathing in general on the video page.