So You Want To Be An Open Water Swimmer?
Swim Magazine - 1993-07-01
I began open water swimming at 9 years old and by 13 had won my first 2 mile race in my home country of Trinidad. I have competed in over 130 races, winning many and losing many. From competing and coaching open water sessions for novices, intermediates, advanced and triathletes, I have learned what it takes to refine and improve your open water swimming.
OPEN WATER TRAINING
Training for an open water swim: Since the majority of races are between 1k and 5k, 80% of your time should be spent doing interval swims in the pool. Attempt your open water distance in a pool prior to race day or open water practice day. For the vast majority of open water races and triathlons, you need no more than 45-60 minutes of open water practice per session. It helps to create at least one opportunity to open water swim each week.
Practice the workout designed on this issueís insert card (page 12A). Try to have a turn marker set about 150 to 200 yards outside the shore line. Line up 20 yards back from the shore line and go on the command by a designated swimmer. Run to the shore line, through the water, dolphin out, swim a straight course to the marker, turn and swim back in practicing finishing skills. At the end of this workout you would have practiced start position, surf maneuvering, dolphining, marker sightings and navigation, and competitive race finishing. Swimming a "straight" 30-60 minutes in open water will not accomplish these requirements. Instead, do several shorter swims that incorporate all the ingredients.
Adapting to open water swimming: The quickest and most effective way to adapt to your new environment is by bodysurfing. While practicing this new skill you are actually doing three things: working on your cardiovascular conditioning, adapting to the surf/chop and cold, and acquiring start and finish race skills. If you have just one hour to spend each week in open water, spend half of it practicing starts, finishes and bodysurfing. If you swim in a lake or reservoir where there are no surf conditions, practice starts, finishes, and navigational skills.
Swimming in currents, large swells or heavy chop: Breathe away from the swells while also checking that they are not going to break on you. Use windmill arm strokes rather than the polished pool stroke, and much more head lifting for navigation. The currents will affect where you start and how you approach the turn marker.
PRE RACE PREPARATION
Staying warm: (1) Before the race - try a light 5-10 minute run before or after you warm up (Triathletes usually cycle before they do a swim warm up). If in cold water, run for a few minutes after the swim then put on warm clothing. It may mean pulling down your wetsuit to the waist and putting on a jacket, gloves and a hat. Itís crucial to keep muscles warm.
(2) To stay warm during the race or practice, it helps if you own a neoprene cap, silicone ear plugs and a wetsuit. (Most heat is lost through the ears and head.) Wetsuits are easily available through mail order companies or at many triathlon, biking, running, swimming, and scuba shops. They insulate as well as provide added buoyancy which will make your swimming safer and faster. All race directors should encourage their participants to wear wetsuits in temperatures below 72 degrees.
Warming up: A 5-15 minute straight easy swim or a swim to the first buoy will suffice. Follow up with a fast-slow swim by stroke count as follows: 10 fast strokes (FS)-15 ES, 20-15, 25-15, 30-15, and finally 40 or 50-15. Spend some time checking the bottom of the lake/ocean/reservoir for rocks, gravel, holes, sea weed, etc. If there is surf or waves, practice riding a few to prepare yourself for a faster finish.
Deciding when to call it quits: Every swimmer must know prior to the race or practice session their limit for unacceptable conditions. Heavy fog greatly affects even the best navigators. Large surf and considerable chop puts fear into many participants. Jellyfish stings can cause painful skin irritations, allergic reactions and even cardiac irregularities. Cold water can cause severe hypothermia. Polluted water can cause skin irritations, intestinal infections or disease. Decide on your comfort level and stick to it! Do not let the excitement or seduction of competition sway your judgment. The rule of open water swimming is safety first.
Calling for help and safety: If you have gone ahead and attempted the swim, but find yourself afraid and lack the skills to stay safe, then itís time to call for help. Simply stop swimming and raise your hand for the professional lifesavers. These professionals are trained to detect swimmers in distress and will quickly come to your assistance. During solo practice swims, notify the lifeguard of your course. It is always best to have a buddy swim with you or watch you from shore. (Remember, the most dangerous creatures in open water are humans.) Swimmers are difficult to see from a boat, sailboard or jet ski. Water skiers, surfers and rowers can easily run over a swimmer! By wearing brightly colored and highly visible fluorescent caps, you can help prevent unfortunate accidents.
Positioning for the start: Two things tend to determine where you will start: your speed and currents or winds. Similar to 10k runs, the faster and more experienced swimmers tend to be at the front. Do not assume a front position if you are not a strong swimmer! Itís also easier to start at one of the sides of the pack. The side you choose will depend upon the angle you must swim toward the turn marker, the currents and/or the side on which you breathe.
Check for currents by watching other swimmers during the warm up to see if they get pulled in one direction, or notice the direction in which the bow of an anchored boat is pointing (the Current will be going in the opposite direction.) If currents are strong and the race start to the first turn buoy is perpendicular to the Current, then start farthest away from the direction of the Current, although it may appear further to swim. Rip tides may alter the above suggestion regarding position. If there is a rip Tide (a flow of water going out to sea) then start directly in front of the buoy and use the currents to assist in a much faster start. Itís a fun and easy ride.
Getting through the surf: Begin with a vigorous, controlled run toward the water. If there is surf, jump over the white water while continuing to run. Once you reach knee depth, dive forward and over the incoming waves. This is called "dolphining." Once the water is deep enough, dive under the waves, push off the ocean floor in a streamlined position and come up swimming hard. If the surf conditions are strong, grab the sand after diving under the waves. This will help ensure that you are not taken back to shore with the surf. The difference between a good starter and a poor starter is getting left behind!
Avoiding Collisions: Decide ahead of time between an aggressive start or a more comfortable, passive start. For novice swimmers and first time open water racers it may be best to start at the sides of the pack and angle wider to the turn markers. It is safer, easier, more enjoyable and faster to pick a side that gives you more room to maneuver.
Turning at the buoy: Before approaching the buoy, decide on either a sharp angle turn (close to the buoy) or a wide angle turn. Sharp angle turns generally tend to be more aggressive as there is much jockeying for the inside position. If itís the first buoy, turn comfortably with a wider angle. For the last buoy you may wish to be more aggressive on your approach and fight for that inside position.
Navigating: The first essential navigational skill to acquire is head lifting during your breathing cycle. Experienced open water swimmers can lift their heads every breathing cycle if necessary but usually look about every 8-12th stroke. Set this as your goal. Bilateral breathing (alternating breathing sides every other stroke cycle) will help in navigating by spotting reference points on both sides.
The actual frequency of head lifting will depend upon your familiarity with the course, your natural ability to swim in a straight line, the water conditions and the number of experienced swimmers around you. Drafting off experienced swimmers may entitle you to take fewer sightings. Your reference points should be large land marks, buildings, utility poles, lifeguard towers, piers, or anchored boats, that are easy to spot at a glimpse.
Make your first sightings on land prior to the warm up. Next, incorporate a swim to the first buoy in your warm up. While at the buoy, check for large reference points that will guide you to the next turn marker. Donít plan on trying to see the turn markers or buoys! Instead, pick large stationary objects as your targets, then the buoys will appear. Having a reference point behind you and taking two or three backstrokes will guide you when swimming directly into the sun or glare. Always have reference points all around you. Three or four successive looks may be necessary during windy, choppy conditions.
Donít follow swimmers ahead of you unless they are very experienced winners or if you trust them with all your money. Do your own navigating! If paddlers are allowed, get an experienced one and plan on meeting up at the first turn marker. Let your paddler do the sightings for you while also benefiting from the paddleboards draft. At times, the finish line is difficult to see and you may not have gotten a chance to set land marks. Luckily, many finish lines are directly in front of the last turn marker. Therefore, make sure that you swim perpendicular to the shoreline.
Drafting: Since itís allowed in triathlons (not on the bike) and in Masters swims, then take advantage. Drafting allows you to save energy, time and navigational worries. Try to swim either directly behind another swimmerís feet or better yet on their side around the hip or knee. Try swimming within one to two feet of your competitorís knees on your preferred side to breathe. Itís also good etiquette to take the lead at times and do your share of pulling and navigating. Swim by the courteous rule of, do unto others as you would have do unto you. There is no need for pushing, toe touching, kicking, or swimming over other competitors. Itís not done in practice sessions, so donít do it in a race.
Breaking away from the pack: The pack is as fast as its slowest swimmer. Similar to bicycle road racing, there should be constant attacks to break apart the pack and eliminate the weaker or out of shape swimmers. If you fall into the out of shape category, do not try to lead the pace! Attacks should be for 30 seconds or more and should be immediately followed by a counter attack to create enough distance to keep the drafters from re-entering the pack.
The easiest way to make a solo pack break is to allow some lateral distance between you and the pack, then make a surge. If not successful, be prepared for a lonely swim as the pack may have countered and decided not to let you rejoin.
If you make an attack in the closing stages of the race, make sure that you have considered good positioning for the finish. You can choose to have the pack on your breathing side or attempt to have the pack follow you in an off direction and quickly alter your course to the finish line. The fastest and most conditioned swimmers do not necessarily win open water races. Many times the smartest and most experienced swimmers do.
After you round the last buoy and head toward the finish line, take advantage of any swells. As you feel the surges of the waves, lengthen your stroke, kick a little harder and allow the momentum from the waves to surge you forward. Look under your arm pits while breathing in a backward direction to sight any waves. If you know how to bodysurf, use it to your advantage. If you do not know how to bodysurf, ask a friend or the expert lifeguards for instruction. Whether you are bodysurfing or swimming to the finish, donít stop until your hand touches the bottom. Dolphin a few times through the shallow water transitioning quickly to running up to the finish line. Spend time practicing swim/run transitions since many swim races are won or lost at this point. If caught in a rip Tide, swim laterally to one of its sides to achieve more neutral water.
Recommendations to all open water participants
Wear a sleeveless wet suit if allowed, use ear plugs, have a pair of clear and tinted goggles for bright or foggy conditions, bring a couple of swim caps, have Vaseline for the arm pits, swim with a friend and do several open water swim practices before the race. Ask lifeguards for advice. These professionals often compete in surf swimming competitions and have tremendous expertise. Always seek advice from the experts. Ask from the likes of open water specialists Paul Asmidth, James Kegley, Diane Graner and Lisa Hazen. Contact triathlete swim specialists; Rick Wells, Rob Mackle, Maryellen Powers, Andy Carlson and Wendy Ingrahm. Keep abreast of information by reading articles by the experts in SWIM Magazine and Triathlete Magazine.
Remember, all the secrets are out, so just practice and Iíll see you all at the start line!