Open water swimming is never boring. Whether you are an accomplished swimmer or a first timer, there is never the “same” open water swim. Variables are always changing such as water temperature, air temperature, currents, river speed, wind, waves, not to mention a possible two hundred bodies starting at the same time and trying to get to the same end point. In as minimal words as possible (I talked for an hour and a half to a group in a hotel conference room on this topic and I still could have discussed the finer points of open water swimming), here are a few pointers, which help alleviate some of your race morning anxieties.
Know how to swim correctly
Proper stroke technique can only help. The more efficient you are in the water, the less energy you use to get to a certain point at the same rate of perceived effort. Find a coach or a master’s swim program to learn, and watch, correct swim technique. It is also good to get videotaped to see yourself swim and thus give you a visual. The main principles I stress for the freestyle stroke are:
- Balanced head position – the head dictates the rest of the stroke.
- Don’t cross the midline of your body from hand entry through hand exit.
- Pull at a 90-degree angle. This is where you get your power. Don’t worry about the sculling movement.
- Breathe towards the “corner” of the pool where you are swimming to, not from. Don’t breathe back and under the armpit.
- Kicking helps to balance the body, sprinting and gapping.
Know the swim course
It is good to see the course the day before or at least the morning of to see where you are going. Warming up on the course is also beneficial. While you are on the course, you can look for landmarks to help your orientation while racing. Notice how many buoys are on the course and at what angle you must make your turn around the buoy to go to the next one.
During warm up, you can also see what direction the current is going to help your race line positioning. If you are unable to warm up, then look at others in the water and see where the water is pulling them. Warming up or previewing the course allows you to feel the river or ocean bottom at the start. There is nothing more surprising then a run into the water and then sinking in a foot of mud on the fifth step. If the course is shallower in areas, use that to your advantage to have a longer run in before swimming. I had an experience once at a race where I didn’t preview the start. I positioned myself on the start line in the most direct distance to the first buoy. About three quarters of the other pros were far to my right. The gun sounded and after ten meters of running into the water, I started to swim. I breathed to my right and I still saw all of the other pros running in shallow water. They gapped twenty seconds worth of swimming with only ten seconds of running.
Pre-start and hydration
Oftentimes, the swim start may be a long walk from the transition area. Give yourself enough time before your wave start to get to the start line and warm up. Also, take a water bottle with you to the race start. Not only may it be a long walk, but also the race start may be delayed. You want to use this to your advantage by staying hydrated while others without water are losing fluids just waiting. You may have to hoard your water like gold so either hide it or be mean and don’t share.
Try to get in the water to warm up and loosen the muscles. If the water or air temperature is very cold, you might not want to get in the water. This is because if you have a long wait after warming up before your race start, then the muscles may tighten and be negatively affected compared to not warming up in the water. If this is the case, “swim” your stroke on land, stretch or even use stretch chords for your swimming motion.
Know where to start
If you are new to the sport or a poor swimmer, start where you will feel most comfortable. Two good places are on the sides or in the back. If you start in the middle at the front, then you should be a good swimmer or else you are a masochist wanting to “toughen up.” A good swimmer also might want to start on the ends to have “cleaner” water so as to keep good form with their stroke. If age groups start in waves, watch the waves ahead of you to see what happens to those swimmers the first few minutes of the swim.
Just like in bicycle racing, drafting is effective in swimming. You can save up to 30% of energy used by drafting off of another swimmer. This is similar to being able to swim the same pace as someone who swims 5 or 10 seconds faster per 100 than you in a pool. At the start line, place yourself next to someone who is faster than you and plan to get on his feet. What kind of swimsuit or wetsuit is he wearing? What is his race number? What does his feet look like? What color toe nail polish is he wearing? Your objective is to recognize and stay behind that swimmer in the race.
Get used to going out hard in swim practice with minimal warm up. This prepares the body for race day. As you get closer to races, you should do this for about a third of your workouts. Unlike long distance pool races, triathlon race starts are sprints at the beginning and only after the opening minutes does the pace become relatively consistent. Sprint starts are common because people have all of this adrenaline flowing and people want to break out of the masses to get behind a faster swimmer and draft. A great workout I use to prepare for triathlon starts is just as mentally tough as it is physically. After warming up for ten to twenty minutes do 4 X 400 where the first 200 is all out and the second half is a hard effort (surviving). The interval in between is at lest five minutes.
- Head out of the water, sighting, every few strokes
- Following the person in front of you, drafting
- Mass swim start practice to prepare you for the inevitable jostling in triathlons. This will help you get over the anxiety of entangled arms and the occasional, yet accidental, punch in the goggles
Getting used to your wetsuit by swimming in it a few times before a race. This will help you feel comfortable in the suits instead of claustrophobic.
As in all of the triathlon disciplines, go with the motto “Train the way you race.”
Know how to enter and exit the water
Valuable seconds can be gained or lost in swim entries and exits. If you are doing a run in start, again know the terrain and also know how to, when to and for how long you want to run and/or dolphin dive before swimming. Also, if waves are involved, know how to dive under the waves at the start and how to ride the waves into the finish. A rule of thumb for entering the water is to run as long as you can get the feet out of the water and then do a couple of dolphin dives before entering swimming. When exiting, swim until your stroke touches the bottom. With currents, know where to start and how to swim towards the finish so that the current helps you as much as possible.
Preparedness for the swim start will ease the already anxious moments of a triathlon start. Give yourself enough time in the morning to view and make adjustments for the swim.
Congrats…you have finished the swim!