7 tips to improve your swimming in a pack

Swimming in a pack can be daunting, and it is often difficult to race at your best. We asked some of the world's best open-water swimmers for their advice and tactics


1. Practise the start

If your race starts on a beach, then check out what the run into the water is like first so you know how quickly the water gets deep and then you’ll know how to time your dive. You need to be knee-deep before diving. – Harry Wiltshire, pro triathlete and first out of the water at Kona, 2016

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 2. Get to the front

If you’re racing for the front of the field (and have the fitness to back it up!) a fast start is essential. Pick a line, see where the first buoy is and plan the shortest route to it. If the start is in water, get horizontal in the water by kicking and have a hand out ready to take the first stroke! – Harry Wiltshire

3. Make a getaway

Looking for a good time? Then you need to start and finish strong. On the start line you’ve got 100-300 people all trying to do the same thing. If your goal is just to complete though, then hang back – there’s nothing wrong with taking 5 or 6 seconds to let the aggressive people get out of the way!

If you’re looking for a good time then practise your start in the pool. You need to be confident you can put a big burst of effort in to give yourself some clear water, but then be okay to settle back into a long, relaxed stroke.  A lot of people don’t condition themselves like this. They tire themselves out in the first 5-10 metres and then struggle for the rest of the race. 

The same for the end really – you have to put that burst in if you want that strong finish, so get used to doing it in the pool. Do some long, steady sessions, but at the end do a block of 300-500m of really strong swimming. See how your body copes with that after doing a long aerobic swim. – Olympic open-water swimmer Jack Burnell

4. Choose your pack position

Drafting is free speed in open-water swimming – plus it means you save energy for the bike and run. But you need to be comfortable.

Where you like to be in the pack is very personal. If you don’t mind contact with other swimmers, then the middle of the pack is the easy place to be, as you’re getting the draft. You’re also getting carried along by the people either side of you as well. It’s the best place to be, but it’s also the roughest place to be, so there’s that trade-off! 

If you don’t like the contact then I would recommend somewhere on the outside of the pack, so there’s nobody to your left for example, but maybe someone to your right so you can draft off their hip. If you get yourself into an awkward situation then you can always break away and give yourself 5 or 6 seconds to readjust. Finally, if you’re the strongest swimmer then by all means get out in front – but I wouldn’t lead. That’s the hardest position and wastes energy. – Jack Burnell

5. Ride the waves

I practise the catch-up drill a lot, as it encourages a long stroke and makes you relax and take time over it rather than rushing turnover, like a windmill. In rough water you’ll need to change your stroke, though, because the waves stop and jar your arms and disrupt the stroke. I try to judge the chop and match my stroke to ride the waves. Plus I always breathe when the wave is dropping, to avoid swallowing water. Jack Burnell

6. Get used to contact

Open water isn’t a controlled environment, there are a lot of different elements in there that can change and the biggest one of them is the other competitors – the people you’re swimming with. Everyone is trying to do the same thing, get round the buoy first,
and that just doesn’t work mathematically. Not everyone can get round at the same time! People are going to get hit and knocked and moved in the wrong direction. So one thing I’d recommend is to familiarise yourself with that sensation. If you can, with other swimmers, practise group swims to stop you panicking.

The main thing with keeping calm is to be in that environment before the race and know how you’re going to react. Some people don’t like contact so avoid it, others will adapt their stroke.

Open-water swimming can be a fairly physical sport, so people need to be aware of this before they even get in the water. It’s not like in the pool, where you have your own lane and nobody is going to touch you! Jack Burnell

7. Don’t swim one pace

Triathlete visits lake. Triathlete swims big loop round lake. Triathlete doesn’t get faster… Sound like you? It’s time to mix it up.

It’s common practice for triathletes to swim large laps around many of the open-water venues dotted around the UK in training, especially when training with 1.9km or 3.8km as a race goal. However, although occasionally setting a distance target and proceeding to swim the set distance against the clock is a valid session, it’s in no way the only session to use in open water. In fact, used too often it can lead to ‘one-pace syndrome’, where an athlete gets stuck at a single pace and struggles to improve their overall time and never seems to go much faster. Frustrating, right?

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A much more efficient use of open water is to swim many short laps with a short rest after each lap, trying to maintain a good pace and time on each short lap. If you can hold a pace above your usual race pace for many short laps with recovery, eventually a pace close to this will become possible over the much larger loop. – Seven-time world champ and swim coach Richard ‘the fish’ Stannard