Swimming Part III: Open Water

You’ve mastered the breathing techniques and body positioning required for freestyle swimming and your swimming times are dropping in the pool, but you just hopped in your first race and swam the same pace or slower than you did last year. Anyone who has been participating in triathlon long enough has experienced this frustration at some point. So how do you put it all together? We think these pointers will help you excel in your next open water swim:


1. Open water stroke with high turnover

Pool swimming and open water swimming are very different. In the pool, stroke length is generally a key to success and stroke rate depends on body size and race distance. There is a certain body type that comes to mind when you think of Olympic sprint and middle distance swimmers.  These swimmers are very good at maximizing stroke length with propulsion and streamlining and this style of swimming requires not only perfect technique but also great strength.  However, long distance open water swimmers are at the other end of the continuum and often sacrifice some stroke length and focus more on tempo, rhythm and timing.  It may seem counterintuitive, but this style of swimming can be very efficient with less muscling of each stroke and a less propulsive kick.  In the pool, water is very calm so there is less penalty for over-gliding, but in the open water it is more important to keep your momentum and avoid the pauses in your stroke.  An increased turnover helps you keep your momentum especially when there is a current present or the conditions are choppy.  An easy way to increase stroke rate is to take away the dead spots in your stroke by initiating the catch a little sooner and spending less time on your breath.  Think about your hands always moving, so the hand pierces the water, extends and then immediately the hand tips down, with fingertips lower than the wrist, wrist lower than your elbow. Keep in mind that whenever you are gliding you are slowing down.


2. Sighting

Sighting is key to a successful open water swim. Familiarizing yourself with the course so that you know exactly where you enter, exit and which direction you swim helps make sighting easier. Often times, each turn is marked by a different color buoy that is bigger than the rest. Know this buoy so you’re not wondering where to turn. If easily visible, you can sight off the turn buoy, but if it is not visible, then sometimes you can look for a contour on the horizon above the swim buoy like a hill in the distance or a saddle.  Scope this out during your pre-swim the day before the race.  The exit is usually marked with banners or an arch or both. Practice swimming back to the exit. If you have trouble sighting the arch look for large landmarks behind the exit such as tall trees or buildings that can easily be seen if your goggles start to fog or you have sun in your eyes. Most swimmers sight every 6-12 strokes. Sighting more often will slow you down and break your rhythm, but swimming in a zig-zag adds unnecessary distance to your swim.  Each time you sight you lose momentum because most swimmers pause their kick, drop their hips and legs and change their stroke. To keep your momentum, you must keep your kick going near the surface of the water so that your hips and legs do not drop. Practice sighting during pool swims, not just during open water swims.  One idea to simulate sighting in the pool is to swim eyes closed, except for when you sight above the water.  This way you practice both sighting and swimming in a straight line.


3. Drafting

Drafting is free speed. The best place to be is right behind someone and slightly off to your breathing side so that you can feel their wake, but you do not need to be tapping their feet with every stroke. This can often make the lead swimmer upset causing them to slow down or veer slightly off course. Swimming on someone’s hip is another good place to be, but it does slow down the leading swimmer. This could be a strategy if you know the swimmer is faster and you will likely get dropped if you move to their feet.


4. Staging

Staging or where you line-up to start your swim can have a huge impact on your performance. If you are a strong swimmer, you should start towards the front, slow swimmers towards the back etc. It sounds simple, but there are many athletes that start in the wrong place. They either don’t like the pressure of starting in the front and start back only to find they get stuck swimming easy most of the race because they can’t get around those in front of them. There’s also the slower swimmers that hope to grab some fast feet so they start up front only to get run over by the swimmers behind them causing panic and an even slower swim. You probably have a pretty good idea how you stack up. Ask those around you what they plan to swim. In many XTERRAs you know your competition well. Remember, swimmers will all converge on the first buoy so the more nervous you are of contact the further you should start towards the outside, especially if the first turn buoy is close. Are you in the top 5%? If so, starting in the front towards the inside is probably best. Just outside the top 5-10%, you can probably still start on the front line, but on the outside or if you don’t mind contact start in the second row in tight and catch the feet of those in front of you.


5. Warm Up

A good swim warm up is always important if you want to have your best possible swim. Your body needs to be warmed up and ready for the intense start of the race so that you don’t get 200 yards into the swim and have to stop because of a panic attack. When the water is cold a warm up is even more important. If you know it is cold, run for a few minutes in your wetsuit first and then get in the water for your warm up. Get in a good 5-10+ minutes of continuous swimming with a few pick-ups, warming yourself up from the inside out. Often the biggest shock is putting your face in the water. While waiting for the start, put your face in the water and blow bubbles to simulate swimming. If you get called out of the water before race start, but already performed a proper warm up, the second time entering the water will be much less of a shock.


6. Getting through the shore break

Getting through the shore break takes timing, but you have no control over the start of the race so your swim start can be tricky. In general, you want to run out until you are about knee deep and then dolphin dive. As a wave is about to break dive under it until you find the calm spot under the wave. As the wave goes by dig your fingers into the sand and pull yourself forward and up. This may have to be repeated several times, but keep moving forward, and do not try to take on a wave head on. If you are running out and are only ankle to knee deep, dive over the wave instead of under. This takes practice, but it can be a ton of fun!


7. Swimming straight

Have you ever had someone come up to you and say, “That swim was long. I had my gps on and it says…”? Maybe it was long or maybe they zigged and zagged so much that they made it significantly longer. We all know the fastest route from point A to point B is a straight line and it’s easy to follow the lane line on the bottom of the pool. Open water is a whole different beast. For many races, the water is so dark you can’t see a thing unless you are sighting. Think alligator eyes!  You want to lift your eyes up out of the water just high enough to see, but the higher you lift, the more momentum you lose. Don’t lift enough and you end up having to sight twice slowing yourself down even more. The best way to get better at swimming in a straight line is to practice. Use landmarks or buoys in open water and practice swimming towards them sighting as few times as possible. In the pool, close your eyes and swim ten strokes and then sight so that the only time you can see where you are going is when you lift your head. Pick a lane with no one in it and see if you can get so that you can swim right down the middle with your eyes closed, but please don’t smack your head on the end of the pool! Just remember, you will likely have to lift your head higher in open water to sight than you do in the pool.


Open Water Take-a-ways

  • Incorporate a higher turnover and concentrate on the front end of your swim stroke.
  • If you’re gliding, you’re slowing down.
  • Keep your legs and hips up by continuing to kick up and down when sighting. Don’t pause your kick!
  • Find landmarks that will help you sight.
  • Staging yourself appropriately will make the swim less chaotic.
  • To swim well you must get in a proper warm up, especially for less experienced swimmers.
  • You must practice your open water swimming skills in the pool and the open water if you want to get faster.
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