OPEN WATER SWIMMING TIPS & ADVICE
One of the biggest barriers of entry into triathlon is the swim portion of the race. The majority of the sport’s beginners don’t have anywhere near the same apprehension and anxiety towards cycling and running as they do to open water swimming and group starts.
The information below is intended to provide general tips to help the triathlon novice get through the swim. These tips alone won’t make anyone first out of the water, but for those of you who face your first few triathlon swims, there may be a few nuggets of advice from my racing experience to help make your open water racing experience much more comfortable.
- Buy new goggles (same model you normally use) & swim in them once or twice prior to the race.
- Spit is the best, most perfect anti-fog product EVER, it's also readily available on race morning.
- Only sprint at the start if you have trained to sprint at the start. Otherwise you'll earn yourself a pretty awesome pain cave two minutes into a long day.
- Find a new best friend... preferably someone that swims ~2-3 minutes faster than you would over the distance by yourself.
- The "hip pocket" is the best place to draft. Don't want to a be a huge pest to your benevolent draftee?... stick to their feet... BUT DON'T TAP THOSE TOES!!!! Otherwise you might find yourself with a mouthful of said toesies.
- If you are a strong swimmer... take the inside line on a buoy... if it looks like rush hour on the TransCanada Highway, stick to the outside.
- Open water practice... close your eyes and don't sight for quite a while... do you stay straight? If not... sight more and try bilateral breathing to see if this evens you out.
- Buy a wetsuit that fits and I mean really really really fits you well. Test it...even in a pool. You'll want a suit that's got a lot of range of motion in the shoulders.
- For anti chafing - Body Glide use it all over. Chafing really is not fun.
- Take in the morning, soak it up, enjoy the day and of course.
- Pre race: Arrive at the race start earlier than you think. This way you can make sure you are organized and not stressed out. It also leaves you plenty of time to head down to the water to get in the great swim warm-up.
- Warm up: I highly recommend a big swim warm up. As an age grouper, I never warmed up. I now spend nearly 20-30 minutes warming up and activating my muscles so they are ready to roll when the cannon fires.
- Before the gun goes: For a deep water start, bring your feet up to the surface of the water so your body is horizontal. That way when the start horn goes you are ready to go. Have a plan for how you are going to handle the start of the race. Kona (or wherever you may be racing) is chaotic, be prepared for it to be crowded and aggressive. How are you going to handle this stress in a positive manner to make sure you have a great swim? Know that everyone else is getting clobbered as well. Being aggressive towards your competitors is a waste of energy.
- Break it down: Break your (or no matter the length) swim down into segments. The first part of the swim is all about putting your head down and finding feet to follow. There is no need to sight the first part of the race. Next up - once you have found feet, find a good rhythm.
- Ironman specific: Many people don't realize Kona has a great pool (that is free). Swimming in the pool race week is a great opportunity to activate your muscles and remind them how to swim with a good rhythm. And, if you are not racing Kona but have a few days at your race location, look on-line for a YMCA or local pool who will let you warm up for free or a few bucks.
- Make sure you have a wetsuit that fits well - it will cut minutes off your race time. I recommend the fastest one in the market – XTERRA is best most of the time.
- Get yourself into your rhythm as soon as possible. Focus on deep breathing and a long, powerful stroke. As for shorter distance events, I just go as hard as I can from the start!
- Try to get into a good pace group from the start. If your group is too slow, accelerate carefully and look out for another pair of feet to follow. If the group is too fast, back off so you don’t exert all of your energy too soon.
- During the last part of my swim, I always relax my legs as much as possible and concentrate on my arms. Your arms can have a rest when you’re on your bike, so use them! During the last 100 metres or so, visualize a smooth transition. Quickly review all of the movements that you will make, and the order that you will make them in. Remove your cap and goggles, open your suit and pull it down to your waist as soon as you get out of the water. Rinsing your mouth with fresh water really helps, as does rinsing your head and upper body after an ocean swim if showers are available in your race.
- Always try to take care of nutrition intake within the first 30 minutes after exiting the water; especially in an Ironman distance event. The sooner the better. During training, a great drill is using an elastic band around your ankles while using a pull-buoy. You will focus exclusively on achieving a strong stroke, which is especially important in the later part of an open water swim.
- Do a lot of intense swim sessions with short, fast speed sets. Triathletes often overlook speed work, which is incredibly important. 20x100m fast as a main set is great speed focus.
- Drills with short fins are beneficial. They strengthen your kick, and you can concentrate on a one-handed stroke, body roll and head position.
- Make at least one swim per week in open water, and make this your long swim if possible. Although pools offer great workouts, it’s always important to imitate your race environment.
- Safety pin your timing chip strap – One safety pin through the Velcro ankle strap can prevent it from being ripped off if someone swimming behind you inadvertently snags it with his hand.
IN THE WATER
- Get new goggles, but swim in them at least once - The old goggles you use at the pool every week will usually fog. A new pair will not fog nearly as much for the first several swims. Make sure you get 1-2 swims in the new goggles so you know the straps are appropriately tightened. Clear goggles can save you time, frustration, and anxiety. Be aware that spraying an anti-fog chemical in your goggles beforehand, if not done properly, can end up burning your eyes. The easiest answer is a new pair!
- Put on your goggles before your swim cap so the straps are beneath the cap - This will help prevent the unfortunate occurrence of having your goggles knocked off if you happen to get bumped.
- When in trouble don’t be afraid to do breast or back stroke to get your face out of the water and gain your composure – Breaststroke is sometimes most popular. If you suck water down your windpipe, breast stroke gets your whole head out of the water so you can regain your composure. If you’re feeling overly crowed or obnoxious competitors are swimming on you, nothing clears your personal space better than a few swift breast stroke kicks. Breast stroke also makes sighting easier so you can visually get your bearings.
- Realize that no one is trying to drown you – everyone is trying to get to the same place you are. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the race start and get aggressive to others. Don’t; there’s no need! No one is trying to get you. They’re just trying to swim too. If you keep that in mind, it’s easier to keep your composure.
- Swim wide around turn buoys – Turn buoys are natural pinch points where all competitors converge. If you are with a group, swim several metres wide around the buoy if you don’t feel comfortable getting knocked around at the turn.
- Don’t forget to sight – Almost every race where there are a lot of beginner triathletes, there is inevitably someone swimming WAY off course. When you get into the excitement of the race, don’t forget to sight often. This may sound silly, but many forget, resulting in extra- long swims.
- Train with some continuous swims – Often, I see people training in a pool for a triathlon by only swimming 50s and 100s or shorter sets mixed with kicking, pulling, and drills. All of these things are important at the appropriate time; however, training with some longer continuous swims will better prepare you for a triathlon swim. You wouldn’t train for a 5k or 10k running race by only running 200s and 400s on the track, so why approach swimming that way. Periodically throw in a long continuous swim!
- If you’re in a group and feel claustrophobic, get to the side – just take two or three strokes and cross over to swim a few metres to the side of the group. You’ll lose some of the drafting benefits, but it can help you feel more comfortable.
- Don’t swim in a cycling jersey, period! - Every race with beginners, I see someone swimming in a cycling jersey. Would you swim in a baggy t-shirt with loose pockets or maybe with a parachute? Then why swim in a bike jersey? If you want to wear a bike jersey, take the ten seconds in transition to put it on. If you’re swimming in a triathlon top, make sure it’s snug and doesn’t have a lot of loose fabric to catch water.
- Swim at least once in your race outfit – This will let you know if anything drags or chafes.
- Know ahead of time that the water will be murky - It’s a reality of open water swimming; most lakes aren’t as crystal clear as a pool. Prepare yourself mentally so it doesn’t add anxiety to your race. You swim exactly the same when you can’t see your hands as long as you keep your composure.
- Don’t sprint the beginning or the end - Only if you are an experienced swimmer going for the win or bonus money is this a wise idea. Otherwise, it only serves to unnecessarily elevate your heart rate. I’ve seen people kill themselves sprinting the last minute of the swim only to be out of breath and walk to transition. Save your energy, relax at the end of the swim, and be the person running past those walking to transition.
- Study the swim course map and course ahead of time – This is very simple and only takes a few minutes. Examine the turn buoys on the map and visually survey the course and turns on race morning. Make sure you can visualize where you’re going and where the turn buoys will be. This can save you a lot of time, confusion, and frustration.
- Get to the swim start early and warm up if possible in the water – At running races, most people jog around to warm up, so why wouldn’t you do the same for a swim? It’s a good idea to get a feel for the water, its temperature, how murky it is, glare from sun, etc. You don’t want any surprises when the start gun sounds. Also it will help you get your heart rate up, so you won’t go into oxygen debt at the start.
- Realize that you will gulp in some water – In every race, you will inevitably take in a gulp of water at some point. If you’re not used to it, it can be disturbing. Don’t panic, just try to relax, and focus on getting back into your groove.
- At the start, let the first group go – In a group start, advice for beginners is to wait several seconds after the starting gun before they start. Simply count to ten after the horn. It will feel like an eternity, but IT’S ONLY TEN SECONDS. This will allow the first wave of melee to go ahead of you and you’ll have much more clear water as a result. A few seconds at the start can save you much more time later if you can avoid panic in a mass start.
- Start in the back and to the side – Competitors will naturally clump up along the direct line to the first buoy. Unless you’re a very strong and experienced swimmer, starting in the front and centre of that group would not be a wise idea. Start a little further back and to the side. Those few extra metres you have to swim may cost you a few seconds in distance, but might save you much more in avoided anxiety.
- Relax when the swim wave behind you catches up – Unless you are the final wave starting in the race, the faster swimmers from the following wave will catch you. Sometimes they will inadvertently bump into you. Just try to hold your line and they will swim around you. They’re not trying to be mean. In fact they don’t want to waste time bumping around. They just want to get moving. So if you just hold your line, they will go right around you.
- Practice breathing to both sides – We all tend to favor one side for breathing, but if you have the ability to breathe to both sides, you can avoid some awkward situations. You may want to switch your breathing if the sun is in your eyes, someone is swimming on your side and splashing you in your face, or you can’t see the buoys. This is something that just takes a little discipline in practice, but can save you trouble in a race.
- Keep a firm grasp on things you can control: There are some things that you can control just before the race that will make a difference psychologically. Here are two examples based on experience:
- First, put your timing chip and strap under your wetsuit. Then, you won't lose it on the swim to the waves or to someone's hands.
- Second, if your watch band sometimes comes loose – you'll know this from swimming laps – then tape it closed. That way, it won't have it come loose while you swim, causing annoying drag with each stroke.
- Swim in the pool with a race cap: Some people never do this, and as a result they are annoyed by the swim cap on race day. Find where it sits comfortable on your head and stays there. For example, does it feel better completely covering your ears entirely or only half- way?
- Cold water preparation: If you think that the water will be cold, as in 62 degrees or below, consider practicing with ear plugs and/or a thermal cap beforehand. Or, practice with two swim caps. Remember that your head is a release point for heat, so that after a mile of swimming your head may wish it didn't have that cap. But, if you've practiced in the pool beforehand, you'll know on race-day.
- Bilateral breathing: You don't have to be a bilateral swimmer, as in breathing on both sides during a race. But, you should know how to breathe on one side so that if the waves are hitting you from your left side you can breathe to your right, or vice versa. It's a matter of knowing that you can do it on race day if you must. Therefore, cool down once a week with 25 metres on your left, 25 on your right, 25 on your left, 25 on your right. Do this once a week.
- Find your place, find your rhythm: You will eventually find your place, or "clear water" at some point in the race. If you don't find it right away, move away from the buoys while staying parallel with them, and while you’re moving, always breathe on the side where you can see other swimmers so that you will know that you are going in the right direction. Then, find your rhythm like you have in the pool on a good workout.
- Practice chaotic swimming: The start of a triathlon swim, and maybe the first 500 metres, is chaotic and crazy. You will likely feel totally defeated and wish you were not racing. The only way to get over this feeling, amongst other horrible feelings, is to practice chaotic swimming and get used to it. Here are three ways to practice a swim start's chaos:
- Enter a sprint triathlon (or even a race with a shorter swim – or just an open water swim of 750 meters or less) and put yourself right in the middle of the start no matter how well you swim. Then, while you work your way to find your place or “clear water,” remind yourself that you are doing this to practice chaos. After this, all you need to do is find your rhythm. Now you are well into your swim and hopefully well into the first stage of the triathlon, you can practice a swift transition in T1, and then enjoy your bike ride, swift T2, and a fun run.
- Do a workout breathing every fourth breath. In other words, make your lungs suffer a bit more than usual. You need to get used to that feeling and how to overcome it. In other words, you need to overcome the smothering feeling of shortness of breath that you’ll experience in a chaotic race start.
- Swim 25 metres with your left eye closed, the swim another 25 with your right eye closed. Next, swim 25 metres fast (both eyes open) and then let water into one goggle and swim 25 more metres with that one eye closed but the goggle still on. Finally, fix the goggle and then repeat the process with the other eye.
- Get an idea of what you're in for by studying race-start photos, take a look at last years event photos or youtube.com for the swim start at last year's race.
- Practice your transition and beware of any transition mishaps you may encounter:
Be in the wrong gear to exit the transition area
Fumble to put on socks (if it's a warm Texas or So. Cal. race, you really don't need them)
Straps on your shoes are closed (they should be open)
The strap on your helmet is tangled and clasped (it should be open, and laying on your aero bars if that is permitted)
You have trouble putting on a dry shirt on your wet body (you should wear it under your wetsuit)
- Don’t put sun screen on your neck (you should wear bodyglide with SPF)
- Study the swim course: Know the swim course forward and backward. Study the buoy positions, and how many buoys it is to the turn. Ask yourself questions like: Is there one buoy or two between the two outside turn buoys? Knowing the swim course will make you comfortable on race day.
- Practice the race start: Practice the first 50 metres of a race start. Find out whether you start from the beach, partly in the water, or all the way in the water. Then, practice that exact scenario from lining up on the beach to the start. Set your alarm to go off in a few minutes and just stand around getting ready. You'll be anxious for your watch to go off, but don't look at it. When it goes off hit your stop watch like you'd do on race-day and then take off into the water. If it is a water start, anticipate the start and get your body flat in the water. Now, swim 50 metres all-out so that the adrenalin is rushing and your arms are getting a bit of that lactic acid which you'll flush out once you relax and just swim.