Most triathletes come from a running or biking background, so it's no surprise that the swim is usually the part of the race triathletes like least. Pool swimming generally poses few problems but taking to the open water is another matter.
There's no doubt that swimming in cold, choppy, murky water is more difficult than doing lengths in a clear, warmish pool that has lane markers, but with practice you'll develop the confidence and skill to ensure you take to the open water with confidence and, eventually, glee.Your stroke in the open water should differ to the one you use in the pool. These tips and drills won't let you down.
1 Body Position
To swim long distances, a streamlined body position will markedly reduce your effort. Poor leg position is a common cause of drag in the water and drag will increase if one part of your body is out of line with the rest of it. Wearing a wetsuit or swimming in salt water will increase your buoyancy and should help your legs float higher. However, don't allow this race advantage take the place of having your legs in the right position during training.
Drill: To optimise your streamlined position try pushing off the wall with your hands by your side, legs apart. On the next drill, bring your legs in and position your arms in front. Alter body position (head, hands, feet, legs etc) to find what gives you the most glide. This will be your most streamlined position, which you can then incorporate into your stroke.
Front crawl: in front crawl the leg kick contributes only a small amount of propulsion. As a triathlete it makes sense to use the legs as little as possible during the swim. So you should only kick to ensure that your legs are horizontal on or just below the surface of the water.
Drill: Again in a streamlined position, arms out in front, determine the least intensive kick pattern that also keeps your legs in a horizontal position.
Breaststroke: With this stroke the leg kick provides the greatest contribution to propulsion, so you have to do it right and do it often.
Drill: Three leg kicks to one arm pull. Determine optimum leg position to achieve greatest distance.
3 Head position
You often see swimmers with a high head position, as if they are looking toward the end of the lane. This may be psychologically useful, but it can be detrimental to an efficient open-water style. Try swimming with your head flat on the surface of the water, so you are looking either straight down or, at most, a metre or so ahead. This will allow your neck and spine to be in alignment, reducing the risk of injury as well as making your legs sit nearer to the water surface, reducing drag.
Drill: Swim one length with a high head (goggles just below the water surface) and feel where your legs are. On the next length drop your head a little and note the effect on your legs; repeat on subsequent lengths until you feel the right position for you. Note your stroke rate for each length and see how this has been affected by the different head positions.
4 Body Rolling (Front crawl)
Body Roll is beneficial in open-water swimming, for these reasons:
- It allows the swimmer to breathe above the waves in choppy conditions
- The larger back muscles (lats) will be used more than your smaller shoulder muscles. This is particularly beneficial over longer distances
- It improves your profile in the water, thereby reducing drag
You should ensure the roll is powered from the hips and not the shoulders.
Drill: While swimming in a streamlined position, aim for an exaggerated body roll of up to 70° from the horizontal. This can be achieved by entering your hand in the water directly in front of your head. Visualising a line from the crown of your head to your groin should help you roll along the longitudinal axis. Start bringing the angle of roll down to approximately 45° by gradually bringing your hand entry in line with your shoulders. Remember to always roll from the hips.
You can access more open-water swimming advice - including breathing and sighting advice, and stroke technique - in the full article (subscriber-only). Subscribe online now to access all our premium online content and make a significant saving on the newsstand magazine price.