Ask the Experts: Openwater Swimming Tips with James Lock

Ensure you're ready to take on the open water with the training and racing tips from our recent webchat with elite triathlete James Lock



James Lock

James Lock is an elite triathlete and founder of British triathlon brand Zone3. James was a nationally ranked junior swimmer and runner, who discovered triathlon at Loughborough University. He became the World Biathlon Champion and World Amateur Aquathlon Champion in 2006. 

In the same year he graduated with a First Class degree in Architectural Engineering and won a prize in the Loughborough University Business Plan competition. This prize encouraged James to work at the Loughborough Innovation Centre where he developed British triathlon brand, Zone3.

James joined us on Wednesday to answer your questions on open-water swimming. 

Read the whole forum debate.

Q: Swimming is my slowest triathlon discipline. I am small and light and running is really where I make gains, cycling too. How can I increase my swim speed without compromising any run time? I guess I'm asking a weight-to-strength ratio question. kittenkat

A: Novice swimmers sometimes forget the importance of a strong leg kick during front crawl. Once you have a strong and fluid leg kick this can seriously help your body position in the water and have a knock-on effect to improving your arm technique. Integrating more front and side kicking into your swim training will not affect your run speed and hopefully will improve your swim technique and speed. Just remember to keep your ankles really relaxed and floppy so your toes are facing directly behind you.

Q: I'm due to do my first non-wetsuit open water swim in 10 weeks. How will this differ to wetsuit swims? How can I prepare for this event in training? ktpie

A: It can feel very different swimming without a wetsuit, especially if you are used to using one in open water. You’ll have to deal with the reduced buoyancy as well as the cold water. You can build up to swimming in cold water by swimming outdoors as much as possible now: with water currently around 20C it’s the perfect time to start getting used to it as the temperature will certainly drop off over the next 10 weeks.

Buoyancy wise, you should focus on getting into a streamlined swimming position and working on a strong, endurance leg kick in training. If your leg kicks fades then your speed will really drop and the swim will become harder and harder. A wetsuit will always keep you in the right position but without one you’ll need better core stability and a smooth and consistent leg kick.

Q: This may sound like a really stupid question but how can I overcome my fear of open water? Do you have any suggestions for those that are not particularly confident in open water or suggestions for overcoming it? I know rationally there's nothing to be scared of but that doesn’t stop me from shaking like a girl when I'm near the edge. Emmy_bug

A: It’s not a stupid question and I know loads of people who have the same fear. I think everybody does at some point so it’s just about controlling the worry, keeping positive and starting to slowly build confidence.

There is no need to go hacking off straight onto a 1500m loop. Try to get into the water slowly with some friends and just create a small straight of around 15-20 metres close to the edge where you can start and stop regularly.

In the UK you’ll need to be prepared for not seeing anything under the water (there is nothing to see anyway) but just focus on your stroke technique and start with very short distances until you feel ready to go further. Try to always stay relaxed and think about your breathing.

Q: I was wondering how you would go about managing nutrition on a long-distance open-water swim? I'm considering a 10K and know I would benefit from taking on fluids/food during the event, but am not sure how I would manage the practical aspects of actually eating and drinking. Any tips would be great. And how important is bilateral breathing? Is it something that I should focus on improving, or does it not really matter? sarah the bookworm

A: Although I haven't done a 10K swim race myself, I know that a lot of the event organisers do have 'feed stations' along the course where you are able to stop and take on some fluids. I would stick to drinks and energy gels rather than going for any solid food and make sure you have swallowed it well before starting swimming again. It’s also important that you prepare for the 10K a couple of days before and on the day of the event. Increase your intake of carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and potatoes and ensure that you have good energy stores before the start. Also, consider making sure that you're well hydrated before the start; supplements such as Dioralyte are popular among the top athletes. 

Also, I don't personally think bilateral breathing is that important. This is the way that most swim teachers will tell you how to swim as it can help with balance and sighting in the water. But I always breath every two strokes and just rotate which side I breathe to every 25m or so. For me it's all about getting as much oxygen in as possible and keeping it aerobic. 

Q: I have a strong swim background so tend not to struggle with distance when training for open water swimming. Over the last few swims my times have been exactly the same, what advice would you give me in terms of training to have a faster open water swim? Also, I will be taking part in the London Tri in a few weeks, and I’m worried about removing my wetsuit as it is quite tight around the feet and ankles. Is it ok to cut the bottom to mid calf to ease taking it off? Julia Sobik

A: Open water racing and training can be very different to pool training. I really had to change my approach when switching from pool to open water. Try doing more sub-threshold swim sets but for around 20 to 40 minutes. Keep it as aerobic as possible so you're going as fast as you can but without going over the red line! Combine this with some shorter distance speed sets nearer the time of the race to get peak fitness. Also, train in the open water and aim to get a more relaxed and fluid technique – be less worried about the perfect form needed in the pool.

For your wetsuit, yes, most suits can be cut down on the arm and the legs to allow them to come off quicker but I would only recommend cutting the legs and using very sharp scissors. The Zone3 wetsuits are designed with a silicone coating on the arm and the legs to try and help this common problem. Check out this example.

Q: I'm rather 'directionally challenged' when it comes to open water swimming. Apart from sighting more are there other things I should be looking to do or change? Ferrous Ferret

A: When it comes to sighting in open water it does take some practise. Sighting can often slow your swim down a lot if it is not smooth, so practise trying to perfect your technique so it becomes part of your stoke. Before you breathe to the side, gently raise your head upwards, take a look in the direction of travel and then swivel your head from that position to the side and take your breath.

Also, if you are finding it hard to see the buoys before you start, look at what is on the skyline behind the buoys – there might be a tall tree or landmark you can head for instead which is easier to sight.

Q: Recently I've been swimming in a pool with a wetsuit and I was surprised just how much quicker I was. I was expecting to be a little quicker but I was cruising at around three or four seconds per length faster than normal. What I took from this was that my catch was probably okay but that my body position is holding me back – I might have sinking hips? Are there any drills you could suggest to fix this? B_Kins

A: The most common problem for all swimmers is body position in the water. It is so much harder to swim if you have to drag your hips or legs lower in the water and you will be much slower. As I mentioned to Kate, I'd try to do a lot more work with and without a kickboard. Work on your front and both sides. Hold the board at the very top and also with just your fingertips at the bottom. Work on using your abs and kick to keep yourself aligned in the water. 

The Zone3 buoyancy shorts have helped many swimmers with this problem. A wetsuit also has a slick surface as well and eliminates drag from swim trunks, body hair etc so this will also make you faster.

Q: I've entered the Windsor Triathlon Sprint distance next year – my first ever – and besides dreading the open water bit, what advice can you give re wetsuits? What type should I choose? What do you use to lubricate it? Alison Hodgson

A: Great to hear that you have entered Windsor – I've done the race myself many times. For your wetsuit you should definitely get a triathlon or swimming-specific wetsuit. This will give you a performance fit and offer lots of flexibility around the shoulders while also giving you buoyancy to help your endurance. It will really help to improve your swim speed. There are a variety of brands available and prices range from around £100 up to £1000. If you can spend over £200 you will get a much better suit for your money and have a more comfortable swim.

Some swimmers will put a lubricant such as Bodyglide on the back of their neck incase the wetsuit rubs but again they should be build for comfort so this is not always needed.

As I said to Julia, the Zone3 suits could be a good option because you will be able to get them on and off easily which can always be a problem for novices. Here is also a link to some of our reviews so you will know what to look for.

Q: How competent do you need to be at swimming before you take on your first triathlon? If your swim is weak, can you still make up the time on the bike and run? Dominique RW

A: Yes, you could always make up the time on the bike and run but swimming open water can always be a challenge in itself so it's always best to be as prepared as possible. You don't have to be a strong swimmer but you should try to train regularly for the race, be comfortable and confident about swimming the distance and also have some open water experience before starting. Sometimes failing to prepare can be preparing to fail! 


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