20 Jan 10 Tips for Improving your Open Water Swimming
by Patrick Evoe
The swimming portion of a triathlon is the triathlon discipline which gives many amateur triathletes the most anxiety. If you had a competitive swimming background before taking up triathlon, then you’re in the minority. For the rest of us, we took up swimming later in life and with that comes challenges. We do most of our swimming training in a pool, then on race day we plunge into the open water. This environment differs from the pool, requiring additional know-how to be able to thrive. As a professional triathlete, swimming was never my strength, so I had to study, practice, and learn the unique set skills open water swimming requires. If you’re looking to improve your open water swimming for next year, read through and incorporate my tips for your upcoming season.
1) Comfort – As you read on, you’ll notice that most of the content I present all relates to making you more comfortable in the open water. The swimming pool is a very controlled environment. The water’s visibility is pristine. The lines on the bottom of the pool keep you swimming straight. The lane lines prevent collisions with other swimmers. The walls and lane lines limit the amount of surface chop and waves. There’s no dangerous aquatic life. The water is usually a pleasant temperature. To most people’s comfort, you’re never more than a few meters from a wall where you can stop if you get in trouble. When you enter an open water environment, depending on the conditions where you’re swimming, you are encountering the exact opposite of all of those attributes of a swimming pool. If you’re used to this nice, safe, controlled space where you do all of your swimming, then it’s no wonder many athletes are uncomfortable when they swim in the open water. Everything you work on in your preparation for open water should include ways to make you more comfortable. The more comfortable you are out there, the better you’re going to swim.
2) Composure – First and foremost, you need to learn to keep your composure, even when it’s dicey. The environment and the competitors around you can lead to stressful situations. You first need to teach yourself to keep your composure. Trust in your swimming training and preparation. If something spooks you, you need to go into problem solving mode instead of panic mode. Don’t dwell on the fear or panic, focus on finding a solution, then move on. In my 10 years racing as a professional triathlete, I’ve had a lot of things happen in races from being stung by jelly fish to getting a black eye from being kicked in the face. You need to have the mindset to be able to stay calm and manage any situations that arise out there.
3) Nutrition – Before you train in the open water or race, you need to make sure you’re properly fueled. The main difference between here and training at a swimming pool, or your bike or run training for that matter, is that you won’t have access to nutrition while you’re swimming. Some athletes will keep a water bottle at the side of the pool to drink during swim practice, but once you’re out in a lake or the ocean, there aren’t opportunities to take on fuel or fluids. XRCEL is the perfect nutritional product to fuel your open water swimming. For a morning race, I make sure to have a bottle of XRCEL first thing when I wake up so my body can begin taking on calories even while I’m making breakfast. I make sure to have another bottle about an hour before the start gun, then a final bottle anywhere from 15-30 minutes before the start. This way, I’m continuing to top-off my fuel tanks with XRCEL. I know the extended release formula will fuel me throughout the swim. Then if it’s a triathlon, after the swim, as soon as I get on my bike, I begin drinking XRCEL to start filling my fuel tanks for the rest of the race. Make sure to think about your nutrition plan leading into your open water swimming and using XRCEL to get the most out of your performance.
4) Conditions – The open water swim environment can host a variety of different conditions that can affect your swimming, comfort level, sighting and visibility. Waves, surface chop, swells, rain, clouds, sun glare, murky water, aquatic life, water temperature, air temperature, salt water, wind, and currents will make each swimming venue different. Your best ally to dealing with these conditions is experience and scouting. The more you swim in different conditions, the more you’ll be comfortable. If you have a few days at a race venue before your event, it can be very valuable to take the time to scout out the conditions. Practice swimming in them. Try to swim as close to the time of day that your race will be so you can understand and prepare for lighting conditions. Talk to other athletes or local swimmers to try to learn as much as you can about the nuances of that swim venue. The more you experience and understand you have of different open water swimming conditions, the more comfortable (and faster) you’ll be on race day.
5) Sighting – Navigating in a pool isn’t even a skill discussed because it’s irrelevant. You have the black lines on the bottom and the walls and lane lines as you breath or in your peripheral to ensure you swim in a straight line. In a lake or the ocean, there aren’t any easy indicators to ensure you’re swimming straight or the most direct route. If you’re navigation is off, then you’ll swim further as you zig-zag your way around the course. The way to counteract your misdirection is to sight, or briefly look up as you swim along. The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to do this without breaking your stroke and slowing you down. You need to be aware that when you look up while swimming, your legs drop in the water, adversely affecting your body position in the water. This slows you down. If you can practice only raising your eyes as high in the water as you need while looking forward, you’ll maintain better speed. The more you practice, the more it will be come part of your stroke’s rhythm. The timing and looking forward will become natural. You’ll need to find out for yourself the best frequency of sighting for you. If you swim pretty straight naturally, you’ll sight less often. If your natural navigation leads you to and fro, you’ll want to sight more frequently. I found that sighting every six strokes works for me most of the time. When I get closer to a buoy or in a situation where more precise navigation is required, I tend to sight every four strokes.
6) Entry/Exit – Every open water swimming race will have a unique swimming start and swimming exit. Some races have “deep water” starts where you’ll swim to an imaginary start line (usually between two buoys), then tread water until the start gun. Some you’ll start in ankle deep or waist deep water. Others you’ll have a beach start where you run into the water and then start swimming. Take the time before the race to scout out and learn about the swim entry. How long will you run before it’s deep enough to dive and start swimming. Can you dolphin dive for a distance before you start swimming (a fast way to move forward with little energy; look up dolphin diving for more information). Are there sand bars where after swimming out, you’ll stand up again and run for a few yards? Are there waves, if so where do they break? If you can, practice diving under the waves so you’re ready on race day. Are there rocks or debris you need to be aware of if you’re running into the water. I once saw another professional triathlete actually moving rocks in the shallow water away from the path he wanted to run into the ocean. Experiment if you’re faster running further into deeper water, or starting swimming earlier. All of these can affect the success of your race start.
The same goes for the swimming exit. How quickly does it get shallow? Are there stairs out of the water onto a dock? Debris or rocks you need to be aware of? If there are waves, study the break so you don’t get bashed swimming into shore during the race. If you have the time, learn the basics of body surfing. If you catch a good wave coming into shore, you can ride it in and gap your competitors. If you take the time to learn about and practice your swim entries and exits, you will give yourself and edge on race day.
7) Rubbing’s racing – There’s a great line from the movie Days of Thunder: “rubbin’s racin’!” Body contact with other competitors is inevitable in open water swim racing. In the pool, the most contact you’ll have is the occasional hand or arm slap from someone else if you’re both swinging your arms wide. In an open water race, there will be contact. Some will be intentional by others, but understand that most is unintentional. No one has black lines to follow like the bottom of the swimming pool, so no one (not even you) is swimming a perfectly straight line. You’re going to collide. Also, because there is a tremendous energy and speed advantage when you draft off another competitor, it’s advantageous to be as close as possible to other swimmers in certain scenarios and positions. You’re bound to bump into each other. You need to be comfortable with that, know that even if you get bumped around, you’ll be fine. Sometimes it slows you down, but if it does, just keep swimming until you get your speed and stroke back. Try not to expend extra energy by “fighting back”. Sometimes if you can think quickly and maneuver to find some clear space, you’ll get right back into your groove. You need to think of open water as a contact sport, embrace it and just go with the flow.
In the summers, the group I train with does one open water swim per week. We practice all of the open water swim techniques I’m discussing here. One of the most valuable parts of that practice is when we get in tight groups and swim around, bumping, playing, wrestling, dunking, and messing with each other as we swim around the lake. It’s a fun way to get used to the contact and learn that even with some bumping, you’ll be okay.
8) Turns – There aren’t any aspects of normal pool swimming that prepare you for turning around a buoy in an open water swim. First of all, if you’re not alone in a race or practice swim, everyone spatially compresses from the sides as we all try to take a tight line into the turn to reduce the total distance. We also compress like an accordion going into a turn and then the pace picks up out of the turn much like car traffic. So you have everyone compressing from all directions going towards one point. This creates an inevitable melee as everyone fights for space. This is a skill that you’ll be better off if you can practice in a controlled setting before a race. In my training squad’s weekly summer swims we use floating docks as turn buoys. If there aren’t docks, we’ve had friends swim out 75-100 meters and tread water to be a human buoy. Then 2-5 of us will swim out to the turn and simulate a race situation: trying to find the right line, fight for the best position, hold your own around the turn, then accelerate through the turn and get back into your groove. The more I’ve practiced this, the more comfortable I’ve become in races as it gets dicey. If you’re swimming in a group, having great turns can make or break you staying with your group or bridging up to the next fastest group ahead of you.
9) Drafting – Every triathlete and cyclist knows there is an advantage drafting on the bicycle. You gain an energy and efficiency advantage from the reduced wind resistance. Drafting is even more important (and it’s perfectly legal) in open water swimming. Water is 784 times denser than air, so even though you are traveling at a much lower speed swimming than cycling, drafting skills in the open water are critical. The first skill to master is drafting behind another swimmer, just behind their feet. The closer you are, the better the draft. You may even touch the person’s feet periodically, but as long as you’re not doing it constantly, you won’t annoy the lead swimmer. The farther you drift back, the less draft benefit you’ll get. It’s not easy to stay “on someone’s feet”. People don’t swim in straight lines, so you have to keep close tabs on the lead swimmer. I frequently sight and feel with my hands for the bubbles generated by the lead swimmers kick. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Even better than sitting on someone’s feet, best drafting position is just off the leader’s hip, but this requires much more skill and practice. You will receive more drafting benefit when you “board short” someone. This named for board shorts swimsuits indicating that you want to tuck in between the leader’s hip and knee, the area covered by material in board shorts. You need to situate yourself tight to their body and you’ll see the biggest dafting benefits. This requires the most skill and control of your body and swim stroke. If your position or timing is off, you’ll lose the benefit from frequent colliding or swimming over one another. This is a great technique to practice with friends to see if you can get the hang of it.
10) Practice Open Water Races – I brought up earlier that my training squad meets weekly in the summer at a lake to practice every skill I discussed here. We practice our entries and exits by doing relay races from the shore so running in and out is part of your time with your team mates. We use docks as turn buoys or if none are around, have a couple friends swim out and tread water acting as turn buoys to practice our lines going into and out of turns. We practice as well the inevitable melee that comes with turns as well. We practice drafting, getting into tight groups, as well as the bumping that goes on when swimming close. Here in Boulder, we’re lucky enough to have several open water swim races throughout the summer. It’s fun to then take the skills we practice and apply them in a race situation without risking our performance in an “A” triathlon race. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be when it’s race day. Make a point to practice and put yourself into open water race situations so you can be ready to go when it comes time for your goal race.