Swim Tips

As we get closer to race season most of us will have to venture from the pool to the open water. For a lot of people this can be scary, intimidating, confusing, and a source of worrying about underperformance based on pool times, as well as other things. In racing now for over 20 year I feel I have found a few things that have helped me, as well as the athletes I work with, transition to the open water.

Getting ready in the pool for the open water:

Sets- This is the first place I like to address the open water, often times before my athletes even know we are working on this skill. Before we even get into the specifics of sets however let’s take an honest inventory of how many people themselves, or see others setting PR’s during the warm up session? I see this so often. We swim in a pool that has lane designations based on ability. While I warm up with athletes I have swam with for years I often notice in lanes next to mine or in my lane with swimmers trying to make the leap to our lane they warm up faster than my race pace! They of course deny it but if you notice that half way through a set you start the move towards the back of the lane order, maybe consider how well you warm up. Learning to keep those emotions in check is critical practice for higher stress environments such as race day.

I find a lot of athletes like to do sets that are primarily focused on the classic 10 x 100 (n 10 sec rest). While this has value and surely can be used for a marker set, it is not in my opinion a good race prep set (depending on interval speed). I would suggest on most sets that are working on sustained speed and race effort keeping your rest interval to 5% or less of the total work is a good practice. So for a 1:45 T pace interval, you should be leaving on the 1:50, no slower. While the math isn’t perfect I would say up to 2:00 5 seconds is a good sustained interval send off.

I also like to lean more towards longer sets. So I think 4 x 300 is a better muscular endurance (ME) set then 12 x 100 on 5 sec. using close to the math above I would use the 10 sec interval here. I think for Olympic up to Half Iron this an example of a good base set. Feel free to modify these 300s too. I like to do variations especially when in a pool that doesn’t have a clock, or I am not motivated where I do 75 hard, 75 aerobic, 50,50, 25, 25. I don’t worry so much about pace and time, just the feel of changing the pace which is also critical for open water. You will need to change pace often to catch a draft, or lose someone, or just have a higher HR while getting bumped around turn buoys.

Another great thing to do is use tools. Things like paddles only for some of these so long as you don’t have shoulder issues will help build strength for rougher open water. You can progress to bands around feet, fly sets, and all types of fun stuff. We have several swim workouts in our AMP (Athlete Membership Program listed here)

Drills – Drills can be very helpful in the pool for getting ready to race open water.

Head up swimming will help build shoulder strength. It will also help you learn to refine and hold good body position. This has been called head up swimming, or Tarzan swimming. I like to also have athletes see what happens to their times when they take an average of 4 sights per length. Remember this for later in the article.

Strokes – While most triathletes fight the need to do anything other than freestyle I think it is a good idea to learn at least 1, if not 2 other strokes. Back stroke is valuable because it offers you a chance to work muscles that are different then freestyle, but also forces you to work on body position as well and remain balanced in the water. Fly is awesome for building strength and while it is short axis swimming (bend at the waist) the arm movement is very similar to freestyle. The only difference is that both arms are involved in each stroke so they get half the rest. This is one of the reasons it can be so effective for building open water fitness and has the added benefit of getting your run in and outs a bit smoother.

Once in the open water there are several things you can do help you capitalize on the work you have done in the pool

Landmarks- this is the first and easiest thing to do. Note landmarks if and when possible from all the directions you can while swimming. Make sure they are as tall as possible. A spot on a tree line, or a hotel, even a flagpole works well. You would think the buoys and the finish line arch would serve as good markers but they don’t until you are only a few hundred meters out. On course that I swim along the shoreline I have often paid attention to the distance I seem to be from shore and use that as a reference point. Just make sure it isn’t the sun, a boat, or any other type of moving object. Also if you are going to be swimming on sunny days, consider this during goggle selection.

Sighting – while sighting the landmarks you must trust your swimming, even if it is in the wrong direction. Remember the sets we swam in the pool with the heads up drill? Well if you sight all the time that is what your open water times will look like! I like to count between 10 (when I am the least sure, and 30 strokes, when I am the most sure or have feet to follow). If I look and I notice I have gone off course let’s say to the right, then I just try to adjust on race day and make myself swim off to the left (or at least feel like I am). If you really are confused as to which direction you are going then do a few breast strokes (good thing you used other strokes in the pool). As well, you don’t have to always see the landmarks, just the swimmers in front of you. Just like Days of Thunder “steer right at em Cole”

Breathing while navigating can be a bit of a tricky thing to get the hang of but my main suggestion would be to practice incorporating the breath and sight forward in unison. You’ll have to learn to trust that you do not have to lift your head as high which will only take energy and compromise optimal body position. Personally I lift my eyes forward just high enough to see where I am going. I don’t need to read the city in which the swim buoy was made printed on it, just a general sense of the direction everyone is going then immediately turn my head to the side to finish the normal breath cycle. I think it is better to do 2-3 sights in a row if you missed a sight then to sight longer one time. Try to maintain body position.

Positioning can be the last tricky situation to deal with. A lot of people will tell you to seat yourself in an aggressive position and hang on for dear life. If you think about the starting line as an X’Y axis 0,0 would be the fasted spot. As you move further out, away from the origin on the “X” you get theoretically to slower ranks as well as if you move back deeper down the “Y” axis. I think it is good to be as aggressive as you can be that you can still maintain calm and order. If you are freaking out and over extending yourself from the beginning, you will miss the draft and you will swim slower than if you had just stayed smooth and in your rhythm.

So much of open water swimming and execution is between the ears. This is a great topic to talk to one of our coaches about which is why we have included this service in the AMP membership. Contact us today to set up your consultation.

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