I get quite a few emails each month, usually asking for advice relating to what people need to be doing in their lead up to their first triathlon. Every once and a while however I get one that requires a little more thought.
Today's post is a summary of what I recently wrote in reply to the question "I'm heading to France to do my first open water race, do you have any advice?". The type of racing and personal experiences that I'm referring to are all at the Elite end of the racing spectrum, but still, open water racing is a new and emerging form of swimming that can be great fun for everyone and take you to some pretty cool parts of the world. It's great fun and while for most people I'd recommend to just train hard then head out and have fun, the post below gives a little insight into the Elite side of the sport and reading back through it was even interesting for me to see how the racing I've done has made me think, both about open water racing and maybe the areas in it in which I have struggled, reflection is always a healthy thing in moderation.
Racing open water could not be more different from pool swimming.
You can't head in expecting it to be like doing a normal race in the pool. The races are long, veeery long, and the pain will be different, it wont be the same burn you get in pool swimming but for me at least it translates to aching both in my shoulders, back and of course legs. Legs as for a lot of 5km and 10km races your legs are not doing "as" much as they would be in the pool, so can and will get cold.
The best open water swimmers are able to fight when they need to fight, but not get distracted by it, they are able to find clear water and take their opportunities, if a gap in the pack opens up they push, move to the front and begin to increase the pace. However, they are also able to draft without getting kicked in the face every 2 seconds and are able to hold their lines without always swimming into people.
The fighting can really get to you, so expect it, especially from the French, those boys LOVE to fight. In some open water races I've done down there, like one of the french cup races last summer, I was being beat on from the start all the way through the 5km. It was tough, but they were all better at handling the abuse than I was and it got to me more than the other guys. It's nothing personal, its just racing.
You have to be able to sight and sight efficiently. If lifting your head out of the water to see where your going (often you will be in a wavy situation so waves can block your view) tires you out, or makes you uncomfortable, then it will be bad for your performance, so learn to sight well and comfortably, it should become a regular drill you do in sessions both pool and open water if this is something you want to keep doing. It's super easy to get used to, but at the start it can take some time, and often in races you can end up spending most of your time sighting, especially if you get nervous or start to panic about where you are in the group or if you start losing the feet. You just need to stay calm at all times as too much sighting will slow you down.
As races go on and you get tired, groups start to spread out, you start to get cold etc and you will get sore. If it's wavy your stroke will have had to change to adapt to this, often you "grab" for the water and because of the waves nothing is there, and then the next stroke you hit the water early as the wave is coming up. Along with lots of sighting and maybe fighting, you can be hurting in new ways. It's at this stage that its so important to just relaxl, stay on the feet (or find clear water at the front), and really focus on swimming efficiently. The best open water guys can stay out of the fighting, stay out of all the crap that goes on it a group, keep their form, stay efficient and really start to push towards the final 1km.
My problem is usually I am at the front over the first few km's then I get caught up a little too much in the group and take any fighting personally. So I get stuck in and lose energy in the process. If you get caught in the middle and are getting swam over I'd try and drift to one side and swim around the outside to the front again.
You have to learn to be aggressive but also clean and efficient in cold, wavy, aggressive and super long swim races. They are great fun but also tests of endurance (on a scale you wont have experienced in the pool), focus and determination. The athletes who want it most will win, its unlike the pool, you could be the best technical swimmer out there but if you let yourself get carried away you'll run out of energy before the end. 5km is a long way to go, 10km is even longer, so remember that and if in doubt, just hang on at the back, stay out of trouble and get yourself in a good position before the final 500m...it speeds up quick at the end, so don't miss the move.
All those things though I had to learn the hard way, often in foreign countries surrounded by athletes I'd never met before, with no coach or trainer there to give me advice with everyone speaking French and shouting things at each other...then once the race started I'd get picked on and just had to stick in...it taught me lots of things about both racing and myself. So my best advice would be have fun, don't take yourself, the other athletes or the racing too seriously and try and come away learning as many lessons as possible.
Remember, the race WILL end eventually, even though it seems like its going on for ages, and once its done you will feel 1,000,000 times better, so push like hell until then, it's worth it.