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Open-water swim tips from Olympic champ Maarten van der Weijden

2008 Olympic 10km swim gold medalist, Maarten van der Weijden, tells Nicola Joyce how you can improve open water swim

If anyone knows about open-water swimming, it’s Maarten van der Weijden. The 6ft 8in Dutch athlete – some say part-man part-fish – famously grabbed gold from under Britain’s David Davis’s nose in the 10km open-water marathon at Beijing.  

But his career hasn’t always been as smooth as his stroke. In 2001 he was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent a stem cell transplant.

  “People refer to a battle with cancer,” says Maarten, “but I don’t see it as a fight which I won. I was just lucky, that’s all. The treatment worked. I was already a swimmer (placed in the top 10 in the 10km and 5km races at the 2000 Worlds) and I’m very fortunate to have survived and continued my career.”

 Following his Olympic success, van der Weijden retired. “Swimming was my entire life for years,” he explains. “Leading up to the Beijing Olympics, I was training, eating and living in my altitude tent. I didn’t want to do that for another four years so took the decision to retire and make the most of life.”  

  Maarten on pre-race…

Know the course before you swim. Look at the buoys and where the exit is. Have the course in mind before you start.  

On open-water technique…

Draft as much as possible and spare your energy for later in the race. That’s what I did at the Olympics: David Davis is actually a much faster swimmer than me, but I drafted him the whole race in order to beat him in the last 100m. His 1,500m PB is 14:45mins, whereas mine is 15:41.  

Three steps to practising your swim drafting until it's perfect

How much time does drafting save when swimming?

On your stroke…

Make your stroke the longest you can possibly get it. The longer, the better. If your stroke is slower, you’ll go faster. I like catch-up drills when I’m training, and counting my strokes in the pool. I can do 11 if I’m swimming slowly, or 14-15 if I’m sprinting. I am six foot eight, though!  

On technique for experienced athletes…

In a mass start, position yourself according to your goals. If you want a fast start, you need to be next to fast people so you can get on their feet and get into that leading pack.  

Think strategically about your position. Don’t forget that in open-water you can be anywhere you want. Make that work for you. If you’re in second place, accept that it might get a bit rough. Personally, I think you’d be better off staying at the back of the main pack where things will be slightly calmer. You can then conserve your energy, exit with the main group (probably only a couple of seconds down on the winner) and make it up on the bike or run. You don’t need to win your race in the water.  

Once you get really serious, it will pay to know your competitors: who’s fast, who’s calm to swim next to, who fights a lot. Then choose your spot accordingly.  

Dave Scott’s five tips for improving your swim technique for triathlon

On upping swim distance…

Always do this slowly. If you’re increasing volume, don’t do a lot of sprint work. Either increase volume or swim speed – not both at the same time. Get used to the volume, then build the intensity back in. Technique is more important than volume or speed. One good stroke is better than two bad ones.  

On strength training…

I don’t do weight training but I’ve always done loads of core work. A strong core keeps you flatter and more streamlined in the water. There are loads of core exercises to do; I’d suggest getting someone who knows what they’re doing to show you some. You don’t need any equipment. I’d always do at least 30mins of core work after my morning swim session and would usually do about 3hrs of core work a week (but bear in mind that was as a professional athlete!). Core strength is also great for cycling and running.  

On mental resilience…

The only thing I think about while I’m swimming is, well, swimming! I only think about things that will help me during the race – other competitors, my stroke, my tactics. You have to stay focused.   In my swim career I’ve done plenty of 20km training sessions that have kept me in the water for four-plus hours, but, even then, I concentrated on my stroke and the times I had to hit. I never get bored; I can always think about things I have to improve.  

I’m not sure if having had leukaemia has made me mentally stronger. The only thing I can remember is that I always used to get very nervous before a race and, in my mind, a bad race was the worst thing that could happen. After my treatment, of course, I realised that a bad race is far from the worst thing that can happen. I’d never want to say that my illness helped me win Olympic gold – there’s no way a bone-marrow transplant can help me physically – but the whole thing did help put things in perspective.

  On last-minute preparation…

I always hated waiting around for the race to start: everyone is nervous and the atmosphere is draining. I always wanted to have the shortest time possible in the waiting room. I did everything as close to the start of the race as I could so I didn’t have to hang around. And I never had any lucky kit, routines or superstitions.  

On staying motivated…

Open-water swimming is like all endurance sports in that you can carry on doing it for a long time. I enjoyed the game of open-water swimming and having my dream and ultimate goal. I was always hoping and training for Olympic gold. In my opinion, if you want to swim for yourself (rather than for a coach or for your family), it will be possible to go and train even on bad days. Ask yourself, do I want to be a triathlete? If your answer is yes, and you want this for yourself, then the motivation to train and carry on will be easy to tap in to.  

Pool sessions: Maarten’s favourite pool-based session

Warm-up: 1,000m of mixed technique drills including catch-up and high-elbows.  

Main set: 1 x 1,000m, 1 x 900m, 1 x 800m, 1 x 700m, 1 x 600m, 1 x 500m, 1 x 400m, 1 x 300m, 1 x 200m, 1 x 100m (increase speed as distances come down, final 100m flat-out).  

Cool-down: 2,000m with a combination of drills and easy swimming.

Total distance: 8,500m

  Adapted for an age-group triathlete Warm-up: 500m of mixed technique drills to work on your weakest areas.   Main set: 1 x 800m, 1 x 400m, 1 x 200m, 2 x 100m (increase speed as the distances come down, final 100m flat-out).   Cool-down: 200m with a combination of drills, easy swimming and backstroke.

Total: 2,300m  

Maarten’s factfile

Born 1981

Lives Eindhoven, Netherlands

Profession Ex-pro swimmer

Major open-water swimming results 2008 Olympic gold in the 10km, World Championship gold in the 25km World Championship bronze in the 5km


Nicola Joyce is an open-water specialist who has swum the English Channel and around Jersey

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