All your swim training and open-water practice has been leading towards one thing: racing. Your key objective is to make sure you put all that preparation and planning to good use by keeping it together on race day to ensure a good performance.
Swimming well in training is one thing, but if you fall apart under race conditions then it’s all been for nothing. That’s why we’re dealing with the specific challenges you’ll face during an open-water triathlon swim this month.
Putting everything into place to ensure you have a good swim begins before you even get in the water. It’s been said many times but you should always allow plenty of time to get ready before the start of the race. There are plenty of things to prepare prior to the swim, and there’s nothing worse than working yourself up into a panic by trying to get them all done when you’re short on time.
Take an early bath
Getting into the water prior to the start is crucial. It gives you a chance to acclimatise to the water temperature, relax, warm up and prepare yourself for the fast pace at the start.
You also need a good understanding of the swim course so you can plan your route. This makes navigating easier – especially if there are currents and turns to deal with [see Part 2]. It’s also worth swimming to the first turn to help you check sight lines, as marker buoys aren’t always visible when you’re in the water.
Most races start in groups – known as waves – in order to prevent bunching on the bike course. Watch a couple of starts and see how people are setting off. Pay attention to what happens: look out for squeeze points, which swimmers have the best line and where clear water emerges.
Swim starts can be either water or land based. Water starts begin with you treading water; land (or shore) starts have you standing at the water’s edge or running down the beach. Make sure you know which one you’ll be facing and prepare yourself appropriately.
Your other key considerations are the direction and distance to the first turning point, currents, and the number and level of swimmers in your wave.
Your swimming ability should dictate your race plan and starting position. If you’re a novice swimmer, it’s best to start nearer the back or sides, as you’ll find more clear water quicker. Always avoid the front of your wave as the faster swimmers will be fighting to get past you. If you’re an advanced swimmer, correct positioning is crucial for a clean start.
How to beat the traffic
Wherever you position yourself at the start, it will be busy, so creating space for yourself is a good idea. If it’s a water start, most people will begin by treading water near each other in a vertical position. The trouble with doing this is that when the starter pistol fires and everyone moves into a horizontal position to start swimming, you end up fighting for space with everyone else.
The best way around these congestion problems is to stay afloat horizontally as you wait for the start by sculling with wide arms and a light leg kick. This allows you to create some space around you for those all-important first few strokes.
If it’s a shore start, it’s essential that you practise the entry into the water so you know how the ground lies to avoid tripping. It’s also imperative that you have a short swim before you start to make sure your goggles are on properly and not leaking. Once they’re in place, leave them alone – further fiddling will increase the chances of leaks.
The dolphin technique is useful for shore starts where there are waves or the water is too deep to run fast in but too shallow to swim in (see the explanation below). It’s faster than swimming in shallow water and is essential for helping you dive under any incoming waves. It’s also helpful for getting ahead and creating space for yourself. Practising the dolphin technique before the race is vital so you know how shallow the water is and when to switch to swimming.
The dolphin technique
1 Running into the water: as the water becomes deeper, prepare to dive forward with both arms.
2 First dolphin dive: launch forward and dive into the water, aiming to go as long as possible.
3 Underwater phase: in waves you should plan to time this so that you dive below the oncoming wave.
4 Placing your hands on the bottom, push up to help plant your feet and prepare for the next dive.
5 Now bend your knees and launch yourself forward for the second dolphin dive.
6 Repeat the sequence until the water is mid-thigh or so, then it’s more efficient to swim.
Once the race starts you need to judge your pace. The more experienced and faster swimmers will tend to go out hard to get clear of the pack, often swimming at almost full speed for over 100m before settling down into a more aerobic effort. For novice swimmers this fast-start pacing plan may not be the best approach – it’s actually much better to go steady and to focus on breathing and rhythm. This way you’ll finish the swim more strongly by not having swum anaerobically at the start.
After the start you need to swim at a sustainable pace. Most triathletes have real problems with knowing how fast they’re swimming, especially when there’s no clock or turn after each 25/50m. It’s therefore very important to know your limits – using the pace clock or a watch to measure your swim workouts in training will pay dividends when converting to open water.
A great workout if you’re racing 1,500m in open water is to swim a 10-12 x 100m with a 10sec rest between each 100m. Note the start and finish times and deduct the rest intervals (10-12 x 10 secs). Aim to swim at an even pace. You’ll probably notice that the first five or six are relatively easy but then it becomes increasingly difficult to hold pace. If that’s the case you know you’re swimming too fast, so you should adjust your pace the next time you do it. When it comes to the race, use your experience from these workouts to ensure you don’t set off too fast, only to fade later.
Good course knowledge is also a big advantage, as you’ll know how far you have left to swim. Unless it’s an out-and-back course, it can be tricky to judge how hard to push. The best tip is to not increase your pace unless you know you can sustain it.
Drafting can save a lot of energy – as much as 25% – yet it means finding the right feet to follow during the chaos of a swim start, so you need to track someone who kicks smoothly and swims at a similar pace to you. This may prove tricky, but it could prove invaluable – especially if you’re beginning to feel tired at the end of the swim.
Watching other swim starts to see if there’s a favoured side of the course will also help, as will being fully aware of what’s going on around you. (See Part 2 for more on drafting during the swim.)
Less-experienced swimmers are often tempted to stop to look where they are and catch their breath. You’ll save a lot of time if you don’t do this and swim continuously, however slowly, through the course.
Taking the turns
When you reach a turning buoy you’ll have a lot less space to swim in as everyone converges around the buoy to change directions. At this point, your awareness of your position in the water, in relation to your fellow swimmers, plays a crucial role in your final placing.
The worst place to be is squashed up in the middle of the pack. The shortest route around the inside of the turn is the fastest but that’s what everyone is aiming for, leaving you with two choices: you either accept that you might have to slow down and fight for space, or you can take a wider line and stay out of trouble.
Alternatively, if there’s a large pack arriving at the turn together, it may be best to back off from everyone else and take the inside line once it’s clear. Being aware of what’s going on around you will help you make your decision regarding the best course of action much easier.
Knowing the best line to take from the last turn to the swim exit will save you seconds, so check it out before the race. If the exit is up a steep bank then you may face steps or a ramp, so it’s wise to investigate how far into the water they extend so you’re prepared for them. Alternatively, if the exit is onto a beach, you may find using the dolphin technique useful for the final stretch.
Think ahead as you approach the exit so you’re ready for it and know what to do. Some people advocate kicking harder towards the end of the swim to get some more blood flowing into your legs. Be careful, though, as too much kicking with your big thigh muscles will set your heart rate racing and you’ll be anaerobic as you run to transition.
Be prepared to feel a little unbalanced as you go from swimming to standing. Cold water can affect your inner ear, and therefore your balance, which is why I recommend wearing at least two swim caps.
The first thing to do once you’re out of the water is to move your goggles onto your forehead to give you full visibility. It’s best to leave them there for the time being, so that you’ve got both hands free to begin removing your wetsuit. Peeling down the top half of your wetsuit as you run to transition will save you valuable time, so make sure you know where your suit’s closure fastenings are and how to operate them while running.
Leave the waist and legs of your wetsuit on until you get to your slot in transition. Once you’re there, pull both sides as far down your legs as possible at the same time. Then stand on the suit with one leg while you lift the other leg out, before swapping legs to get your other one clear. If your suit is tight, applying a little lubricant around your ankles before the race should help. Alternatively, you can cut the bottom few inches of the legs off, which will make the openings a little wider – just be careful not to damage the seams.
Each open-water swim presents its own specific challenge, and you need to be able to familiarise yourself with their particular characteristics. This means finding ways of reducing your anxiety levels, increasing your comfort, and maximising your focus on technique and race strategy.
Choosing a wetsuit that meets your needs, preparing well and practising your race skills – as well as carrying out a good warm-up routine – will enable you to take minutes off your time. Whatever may happen during a race, the better prepared you are, the more likely it is you’ll remain in control.
Remember: a tight, anxious swimmer is also a slow swimmer. So keep calm, stay relaxed, remain in control and you’ll swim better than ever this season.
Andrew Potter is a BTA-qualified coach who specialises in open-water swimming and runs T3 Performance Coaching
Training for open water
Use the sessions suggested here to give your open-water swim training some structure. It’ll also add a bit of variety and fun…
Start each session with a warm-up. Focus on breathing and overcoming the cold-water shock. Use different breathing patterns and roll onto your back for breathing exercises, relaxation and visualisation of your start plan or swim session.
Practise slowing down your stroke and focusing on technique with some drills – for example, the catch-up stroke (delay stroking with your leading hand until your recovering arm catches up with it).
Do a progression of short swims at pace, keeping your breathing and rhythm steady to raise your heart rate and warm-up.
Finish your session with a longer, steady swim followed by stretching.
Practise swimming ‘blind’ to improve your ability to swim straight (see Part 2).
Develop your sighting technique in the pool, as well as using sighting points on the shore in open water to help you stay on track.
Swim with one or two training partners to practise swimming as close as you can to each other to simulate a race situation. Take turns at being the annoying one splashing water!
Practise swimming for time instead of distance. Increase the time you swim without resting to get used to a continuous effort in open water.
Try swimming with an unzipped wetsuit, then stop and zip it up in the water. Now if this happens in a race, you won’t panic but just stop and fix it. The same applies to your goggles.
Develop your ability to draft by swimming in a line with others and taking turns at setting the pace at the front.