7 open-water swim myths busted

Fact or fiction? Triathlon swimming coach Dan Bullock explains the truth behind the open-water swim myths

Credit: Paul Bradbury /  Caiaimage / Getty Images

  1 A Triathlon wetsuit forces you to swim with a straight-armed recovery

Wetsuit manufacturers actually put plenty of effort into making flexible suits, so not much should have to change with regard to the mechanics of your stroke. With enough rotation through the long axis, you should still be able to recover with a high elbow. This has a number of benefits…

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Shorter, faster trajectory from hand exit to re-entry and a more defined glide forwards.

It’s easier to set up the catch. A straight arm entry is more likely to continue to pull in a straight alignment under the water.

Less likely to laterally deviate or ‘snake’, as more forwards momentum is created. 

Provides a chance for the forearm and hand to conserve energy.

What to look for in a triathlon wetsuit

 How much buoyancy does your triathlon wetsuit need?

2 In Ironman the swim is irrelevant as it’s a small percentage of the race

While watching Ironman Austria, I stood by the exit of T1 to watch those racing head out on their bikes. For the first hour competitors were few and far between, and exited with space to safely mount their bikes. Most looked relaxed and were in no hurry to start refuelling. From 65mins onwards the numbers started to pick up, until at 75-85mins packs of 10 and 20 were exiting together non-stop. Not only were these athletes considerably more tired and disorientated than those who had exited the water earlier, they also began to refuel immediately, causing numerous accidents.

 3 You don’t need to kick when wearing a wetsuit

Research undertaken by swimming biomechanics specialist Professor Jan Prins, founder and director of the Aquatic Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, suggests that good rotation and a solid leg kick will provide the stable base from which to make better use of your arm-pull.

In observing my own swimmers, I see a strong correlation between the stronger kickers and the faster swimmers. This isn’t conclusive by any means, but if you’re swimming around the 24min mark for 1,500m, and are looking to break through to 21mins, you may need to re-evaluate this aspect of your stroke.

 4 Putting a wetsuit on will correct a faulty leg kick

It won’t. If you have a poor kick in your Speedos, it’ll be just as bad in a wetsuit. You’ll be higher in the water and it’ll be easier to float, so it may seem like it requires less energy to swim. But a poor leg kick (kicking from the knee rather than from the hip) will create drag and your arms will need to work harder to compensate.

How to improve your swim kick efficiency and save more energy for the bike and run

Do leg-kick swim drills matter to triathletes?

 5 Swimming front crawl continuously for 4km in training will make you faster

Interval work, heart rate (HR) swims, negative split work, build swims, reducing sets, kick, pull, fins and paddles all help mix up your sessions. They make them more interesting and get you swimming faster. Simply swimming at one pace for as long as possible might boost aerobic capacity, but it won’t do a huge amount for your speed.

Introducing other strokes to your fitness sessions can work well, too, because cross-training can reduce the risk of over-use injuries and help you build up a better feel for the water. The challenge I set my swimmers is Tri-Fly. This combination of butterfly legs and front-crawl arms was a favourite of former Russian Olympic champion Alex Popov. It takes quite a lot of concentration as it affects your timing and coordination, but is a great drill to perfect.

Four steps to a faster swim (part 1)

6 Sighting frequently is a good way to make your open-water swim faster

Every time you sight, your swimming velocity decreases as your body position lowers. If your front-crawl stroke is balanced, it should naturally keep you reasonably straight. With this in mind you may not need to sight so often, keeping your swim velocity higher. If you tend to go off-course easily, sight more regularly until you can get your stroke checked by a coach. If you can nab a lane to yourself, practise keeping the black line directly beneath you. Try a few strokes with your eyes closed; if you continually drift you should get your stroke checked, as something will be off balance.

Three steps to better swim sighting

Chrissie Wellington’s Open Water Guide: Sighting

 7 You can’t swim fast if you don’t have great buoyancy

At its most basic level, swimming is about maximising propulsion and minimising resistance. No matter how good the technique, there’s always drag involved with swimming. If propulsion is maximised and resistance minimised within our swim technique, then we move forwards with economy of effort. Some of the greatest swimmers have not been particularly buoyant – good technique always wins through. The buoyancy provided by a wetsuit simply gives you the luxury of swimming more conservatively and getting onto the bike a lot more rested. 

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