Open Water Techniques and Tips
By Greg Chatham for Front of the Pack Triathlon Store
Warm water – Always wear what you’ll race in. If you’re looking to place you can always wear a fastskin type shorty over your race clothing. Women should race in their suits. Men, take your singlet off your shoulders and tuck it into your shorts with just a bit of the shoulder materials sticking out to grab when you exit the water.
Cold Water – Always, if legal, wear a wetsuit. One of the common errors I see walking around before a race; usually more than 50% of people are not wearing their wetsuits correctly. Make sure you have the wetsuit’s inseam all the way up. There should be no space between your groin and wetsuit. That will allow the appropriate material to be up on your torso and provide more movement rather than a constricting feeling. If you are in a swim that does not allow wetsuits you’ll want to insulate your body as much as is legally possible. Wear either a neoprene or extra swim cap under your race provided cap. Use products like Vaseline at points around your body where the blood passes very close to the skin’s surface i.e. inner arm at elbow, arm pits, back of knees. For men, even if you’ve had a good shave that morning what little beard is there can lead to chaffing. Products like Bodyglide are a good solution to prevent the rubbing. Ocean water is worse than lake water due to all the extra minerals.
Entering the water – Knowledge of your swim course is important for reasons of safety and speed. I always like to, when possible, get in the water to see the course. Some things to consider prior to entering the water: boat & water craft traffic, riptides and currents, water temp approximation, are there lifeguards, where are you allowed to swim, what will the course be, direction of travel, how many buoys there are and what side I am passing them, any hazards to be aware of, wave or start time.
There are a number of starts you’ll encounter in open water competition (beach, time trial, in water), which all require different techniques. Open water competitions pretty much all end up with a water exit. Certainly in the sport of triathlon as you still have two disciplines left! (Open water relays for most will require a swimmer exchange. Have the next swimmer warm up ahead of the exchange. Then when its time begin swimming in front of the current swimmer. Don’t tear off being the fresh swimmer! Swim easy enough that your finishing swimmer can tap your foot and off you go! You can hug, kiss, high five, tell them about your swim, what have you after you are all done with the race!)
Before starting the race you must warm up. You can do this in or out of the water. If there is little space or time to warm up in the water (Wildflower!) I’ll run easy for about ten minutes until I begin a light sweat. By doing this I’ve brought my heart rate up, gotten blood flow to my shoulders, and warmed up the leg muscles. Quickly get into your swim gear and head for your start.
Beach Starts – Things to think about for a beach / shoreline start: How far is the run to the water, what line do you want to pick (this can determine your place in the group and where you plan to hit the water), water depth, any deep holes in the shallows (found during your warm up & checking your line), how far is the run out before your actually take to swimming, will you need to use dolphin diving, are there waves / beach break and what are their frequency, presence of a riptide (think - how can I use this to my advantage), is there a current and in what direction, where is the first (and/or farthest) buoy you can see, who can I place myself next too for a faster swim.
Time Trial Start – Rare these days. Many of the same principals from the beach start come in to play here. Realize that many people will “misjudge” their actually swim seed times! In this case, I have no qualms about swimming straight over swimmers that fudged on their seed times! Please submit a legitimate time you honestly think you’ll do. Your PR isn’t always appropriate if you’re not currently in that type of shape!
In-Water Start – Again, many of the positioning and line issues from the beach start should be used here. Put yourself in the position on the line that you’re comfortable with. With about thirty seconds to go before the start gun go from a vertical floating position to a more horizontal swim position. Try to make yourself as “big” as you can be to protect your space by sculling your arms and legs.
Once the gun goes off you should have warmed up enough so that you can raise the tachometer a bit and go for a short burst of speed. Not an all out sprint, just a slight bit faster than your race pace. Hold this pace for 200-300 meters then settle into your race pace. Why do this? You’ll find a number of benefits from using this strategy; mainly you’ll leave behind those swimmers you’re usually wrestling for space with and catch the feet of faster swimmers to be dragged (20-30% easier) to a faster and somewhat easier swim. If you do this without a proper warm up, be prepared to pay the price! I could go into the physiological things that will happen in your body but the short and sweet of it is that you’ll hit the wall in a very bad way. Easy on the kick, that will be your passing or bridging weapon if you need it. Plus you don’t want to kick anyone in the head when you’re in a tight start or swim group.
I hope you’re getting the importance of a proper warm up!
Open Water Racing – Cool, now you’re off and racing! Things to think about during the swim: sighting, pace, breathing, drafting, safety, your line, and eventually your water exit.
Sighting – One of the main issues I see here is that people often come to a complete stop to get their bearings in the water. In doing so, they give up their momentum, unbalance their bodies by going head high and hips low and in short waste time. Rather than trying to take in the scenery, know what you expect to see so when you look up you’ll quickly be able to analyze what adjustments you need to make. To stay balanced and fast; as you begin to start your breathing movement lift your upper body slightly on the water extend your chin forward and peek forward to get a snap shot of the course ahead. Turn your head back to the side to complete your inhalation then snap that head back to centerline to allow the body to rotate back through on its axis. Try to sight every sixth (6th) stroke to stay online but adjust to make sure you swim the straightest line. Think how far you can travel in six strokes! Also, bring multiple sets of goggles in different colors to be prepared for whatever light conditions you may encounter.
Pace – Again, I like for open water swimmers to take off faster than their pace in order to ride the draft of faster swimmers. You’ll want to swim in between your aerobic threshold and your lactate threshold. A good way to judge this is by lots of long threshold sets in the swimming pool and knowing your perceived exertion at that performance level. Example - You should be just above conversational, where you may have to grab a quick breath if you were trying to get a sentence out.
Breathing – Very personalized here. Of course I should recommend that you breathe bilaterally but I don’t really believe that works for everybody. By breathing on each side you have the advantage of getting a better idea of your place in the water and those around you. Also, the more you breathe the more off balance you’ll be. Nearly all swimmers unbalance themselves when they make the head movement to breathe. Say you have two swimmers, Swimmer A breathes every third stroke and Swimmer B every other stroke. If they each take sixty strokes per one hundred meters that means that Swimmer A will break his balance to breathe 20 times while Swimmer B breaks his balance 10 more times for 30 breathes.
Drafting – Do it! Catch a ride every opportunity you can! You’ll save time and energy by using drafting to your advantage. One thing I like to stress, if you’re taking a free ride but a polite passenger. Stay just off their feet but do your best to not touch them. If you have the chance to tuck between two swimmers, that is a good option and fast too. Try to place yourself at their feet, their waist or just back and between two swimmers. If you’re drafting and you don’t feel like you’re going as hard as you’d like, try to pull out of the draft and see if you make forward progress. If so, move on and find more feet. If not, that shows you the free ride you were getting. Tuck back in a conserve that energy.
Safety – If you don’t expect to come out of the water towards the front of your wave, don’t line up front and center! This will keep you from getting pummeled in the water. Pick a reasonable spot to start in. Try to swim with an “up front” stroke. This will protect your head from getting kicked. Protect your head and space with a proper wide stroke (hands entering 8-12 inches ahead of head and in front of your shoulders). When Duck or Dolphin diving always, always, always have your hands extended in front of your head in good streamline position. Also, remember we’re all trying to have our best swims. If someone is on your feet don’t kick like crazy to shake them off your tail. You may end up hurting someone. You can increase your rate, start to pull away and then use your kick a bit more once you have the gap.
Your Line – Always swim for the farthest buoy you can see. Don’t expect that the people laying the buoys do a perfect job every time! Sometimes swimming buoy to buoy is a longer route. Of course, know ahead of time what you expect to see out there i.e. number of buoys, different types of buoys and what they signify, etc.
Exit – Ideally you should have checked out your exit spot before you started the race. Things to check are much like the start but in reverse order. What is the bottom like, will there be beach break, how far to the finish or which way to the transition. Your blood will have been feeding your swim muscles and lungs for sometime now and also traveling around your body in its horizontal position. Practice and get used to the awkward feeling off standing up and running once you exit the water. Ok, here is my number one pet peeve that I see in the swim. People see they’re near the finish and then see the bottom and stand up. Only to realize they’re up to their waist or even chest in the water. What do they do then, they start to wade into shore. Noooooo…….! Always swim until your hand brushes the bottom. Leave that hand there, recover the other hand and grip the bottom. Draw your feet forward and under your body, stand up and run out of the water. Hey check that out, you totally just passed a bunch of people floundering their way out of the water!!!