Six Tips to Get Your Open Water Swimming Race Ready
Every triathlon starts with a swim. Whether you love the swim or loathe it (and it’s usually one or the other) it is the way your race day is going to get underway, so it’s vital to get off to the best possible start!
Although races as we know them might still be a way off yet; there have been signs, in the last few weeks, of the triathlon world slowly getting back to normal after the devastating effect of the global COVID – 19 pandemic. Most notably perhaps, Open Water Swimming venues have started reopening their doors. Swimmers and triathletes can now get back in the water and putting in those all important miles. But, with water space and time at premium, and lost time to make up for, how can you be sure you’re getting the most out of your Open Water sessions?
Here at Sports Tours International we’ve put together a list of six simple tips, from kit advice and preparedness, to training and technique tips, to help you get race ready and take your swim to the next level for when the events return.
1. Physical Preparation.
This includes both kit and preparing the body for exercise. In terms of kit, the first place to start is to make sure you have the right wetsuit for you, and that it fits correctly. Things to consider include; do you want sleeves? Which will increase streamlining and buoyancy, but restrict shoulder movement. How much buoyancy do you want/ need in a suit?
When you have the perfect suit, take your time putting it on. Make sure the suit is on high enough so as not to restrict movement around the back and shoulders. The fit should be snug in the crotch with no material collected around the back of the knees. Get the legs right before starting on the upper body.
Once your suit is on properly, gently warm up the body with dynamic stretches such as arm and leg swings, and always take your first few hundred metres of swimming fairly easy.
2. Mental Preparation.
For Open Water Swimming in particular this is as, if not more, important than physical preparation. It is always good to have some knowledge of where you are swimming before you go (for example water temperature and depth, and swim route.) Have your training set in mind (for example 1 lap steady 1 lap fast, or burst sprints etc.) and take a few moments to prepare yourself before you get in. It is always good to enter (especially cold) open water slowly. This reduces the risk of cold water shock and helps you keep control of your breathing as you start to swim. Vital if you are to have a productive session.
3. Bilateral Breathing
Breathing technique is, without a doubt, one of the hardest elements of front crawl swimming to master. A good technique to master more efficient aquatic breathing is ‘bubble breathe drills’. Here you exhale on one (or more) arm stroke, and inhale on another. This prevents swimmers from holding their breath underwater.
Most swimmers will naturally favour 1 side when they breathe. However, being able to bilateral breathe, can give you a huge advantage when triathlon racing. This is because; not only will it allow you to better assess where yourself and your competitors are in the water (also assisting with sighting), but it will also help you cope with the variables of nature. For example if the current or waves are making one side particularly difficult to breathe on, or if there is glare from the sun coming from one direction (likely at a sunrise triathlon swim).
There are several ways to work on bilateral breathing, but the most simple is to extend bubble breathe to bubble bubble breathe. Be sure to slow down when trying to master new drills, and really focus on extension and lengthening the stroke, as this will give you more time for your breaths.
4. Improve Your Sighting
In the open water there is no blue line to follow. Sighting is vital to keep you swimming in a straight line efficiently, and ofcourse staying on course. One of the most common faults for sighting is lifting the head too high out of the water. This causes the legs to drop and body to lose alignment, resulting in increased drag.
A drill to improve efficient sighting is ‘crocodile eyes’, which is, you guessed it, swimming (or just kicking) with your eyes just above the water. Once you have mastered this, try crocodile eyes, breathe to the side, back to crocodile eyes. Finally try eyes in, crocodile eyes, breathe to the side. The lower profile will improve body position, helping you to maintain pace when you breathe. Sighting should ideally happen just before you take a breath. Lift your eyes out of the water by pressing down lightly on the water with your lead arm.
Breathing and sighting techniques can also be practised in the pool. It can be a good idea to try anything new indoors, before heading to an Open Water environment.
5. Go the Distance
Swimming is a great way to work on aerobic capacity and endurance without pounding the joints on the pavement, or punishing your muscles on a bike. Equally if you can set yourself up with a strong and relatively effortless swim, you will have more energy left to tackle the bike, and finish with a really strong run. To avoid shoulder injuries (although with good technique they are fairly rare) build up your swim distance slowly. It is then a good idea to do regular ‘endurance swims’. These could be anything up to, or even over 5 kilometres in length. If you get used to doing up to 5 km on a fairly regular basis 3.8 km will be nowhere near as daunting on race day. The swimming should be at a steady pace with no strenuous efforts. You are simply ‘building an engine.’
6. Speed Play
Just as with intervals on the track, or on a spin bike, mixing up the pace of your swims can really help improve your overall swim fitness, and increase that all important race pace. Speed drills can vary depending on the aim of a particular session. So if you want to work on improving your speed endurance, you might do 10 mins fast followed by 2 mins easy x5 as a session. If you want to work on cadence (arm speed) shorter intervals might be more effective (such as 20 arm turnovers as fast as you can, 10 arms steady recovery for a set period of time).
Speed play and interval training is generally considered a more time efficient form of training, that can see you making time gains and improvements in a relatively short period of time!
A Note on Swim Safety
Think about your kit. Using a wetsuit can assist with buoyancy as well as reducing the risk of cold water shock. Use of a tow float can be really useful, both for visibility, and if you develop cramp or need to take a rest.
If you are new to a particular venue, it can be a good idea to do a little research before you go. Always enter cold water slowly (including where you do not know the water temperature). It is advised to attend supervised sessions, with appropriate safety cover.