Learn to Love Open Water

Most triathletes come to the sport through running or cycling, which means that swimming can pose problems. But even if you thrash about the pool as if you're very angry at something, you can learn to love the water


Posted: 23 November 2009

I am not a fish. I'm not even a hippo or an elephant. They all swim instinctively. I don't. There is nothing I find natural about moving through water. That's not to say I can't swim. Like most people, I've been swimming since childhood. For periods of time I've even used swimming as my primary form of exercise but it's rarely been anything other than hard work. Hour after hour I've struggled up and down various swimming pools while those around me glide past effortlessly. The harder I try, the slower I seem to go. For someone who considers himself well coordinated and athletic it's a mystifying situation.

The truth is I don't really understand swimming. I have no idea what a good swim time is for any distance. I don't know if there are any universal standards by which swimmers judge themselves, what the performance gulf is between novice and elite or how quickly you could expect to progress with professional help. Is a smooth, powerful stroke the work of three months, six months or a pipe dream for anyone taking swimming seriously in adulthood? 

Help required

Studying the world's best swimmers doesn't offer much insight, either. I have no sense of who has the best technical stroke and the subtlety of why one person is moving faster than another is completely lost on me. As for the training, all I know is that prodigious amounts of it are standard fare, whatever the specialised distance. What the elite actually do in the pool other than swim up and down hundreds of times a day I have no idea. But I'm eager to find out because I desperately need help.

I learnt to swim as most of us do, by trial and error in a public pool, moving from shallow to deep as my fear of drowning receded. It hasn't progressed much since. I've never taken part in a swimming race and I've never had a swimming lesson or any useful instruction on what I should or shouldn't be doing. Everything I know about swimming I've taught myself, as would be blatantly obvious if you saw me in the water.  

Facing the facts

It would never previously have occurred to me to seek out external help to improve my swimming or even to have a sense of introspection about it. But now, on the cusp of my first serious triathlon season, the obvious limitations of my swimming have become an issue.

Like most aspiring triathletes, I'm coming to the sport largely from an endurance running and cycling background. As such I think my concern about the water element of the challenge is fairly typical. 

Triathlon swimming generally means open-water swimming, which is an alien environment for most novice triathletes. (Yes, I realise that I could limit my multi-sport career to pool-based events but that's a bit like putting a permanent set of stabilisers on my bike, just in case.) 

The more you learn about the sport the more daunting an open-water swim leg becomes; there's the bun fight for space at the start, the shock of moving through cold, murky water and, of course, the gnawing fear that in the middle of the lake or in the ocean there's no concrete floor to step on or wall to reach for when you gulp down a huge mouthful of water. But those are worries for another day; for the moment, just trying to become a better swimmer is testing enough.

Swim smarter

While my natural inclination would be to start along the road to improvement by jumping literally and figuratively in at the deep end, I've tried that before and it didn't work. Simply clocking up hundreds of laps can make you feel better about your swimming but it won't make you a better swimmer.   

After a day or two scanning the internet and reading various instructional tomes on swimming - you might be surprised to find that there are 900-page technical books that discuss the intricacies of which part of your hands should catch the water first and how best to move your head in the recovery phase of the stroke - it's clear that my experience of running and cycling are a big part of the problem. Both are honest sports: that is, they reward those who train the hardest. There is no real alternative,
for example, to putting in the hours on your bike and there is a direct correlation between the amount of effort you put in and the performance you achieve. 

At one with water

Swimming is different. To start with, the idea of being a 'better' swimmer - particularly in the triathlon, where it's only the first and generally the shortest part of the race - is not just a matter of speed. Effort and energy expenditure are just as important and they are less about your physical capabilities and more to do with how you apply your physique to the demands of moving it through water.

"Good swimmers don't necessarily conform to the stereotypes of athletes out of the water," says Dan Bullock, one of the founders and head coaches at SwimforTri, a London-based organisation that specialises in helping you improve your swimming technique. "The ideal physique for swimming would be a long torso, relatively short legs and big hands and feet to power you through the water."

But the physique alone guarantees nothing because swimming, first and foremost, is a technical sport. Power and strength can be important but blindly applied they are likely to be counterproductive. If you think of it less like running and cycling and more like golf or a martial art then you will start to think in the right way. 

The science part

My hours thumbing through that 900-page book (Swimming Fastest by Ernest Maglischo), as well as texts such as Terry Laughlin's Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster And Easier, point to the conclusion that swimming has two primary concepts, propulsion and drag resistance. I'm oversimplifying it, but stick with me. 

To date my mediocre effort in the pool has focused exclusively on propulsion. The idea of improving my drag resistance or presenting a more aqua-dynamic shape has never really occurred to me. In fact I'm embarrassed to recollect that all my recent pool sessions have been in a pair of baggy beach shorts. I might as well have strapped a tow rope around my waist. Should you be equally dubious about the importance of reducing drag, consider that the 25 swimming world records set in the pool at the Beijing Olympics were attributed as much to the suits the swimmers wore as to the athletes themselves or their training regimes.

Water works

While I don't need the Speedo LZR racer suit just yet, there's no reason I can't use some of the same principles to my benefit. At least that's what I think Dan Bullock is trying to make me understand in my first ever swimming lesson. Curiously, we start off walking rather than swimming along the pool to make me appreciate just how unsuited the human form is to moving through water. The bigger the body area you present to the water the more you have to fight against it and the slower you move. This self-evident example is followed by the equally obvious but brilliantly illustrative demonstration of how much easier I can glide through the water if I push off from the wall lying as flat as possible with my arms stretched out in front and my elbows tucked tightly against the sides of my head. "Try to imagine you are looking at a swimmer from the side, the body should be flat from head to toe, and parallel with the water's surface," says Bullock. "If your legs are too low, you are presenting more of your body to the water and you'll slow down."

I am a perfect student until I have to move my arms away to demonstrate my personal variation on the front crawl. It's not pretty.

The judgement

A classic windmill is the initial verdict. My arms are working against each other and I'm using a lot of energy going nowhere fast. When I try to swim, my head rises out of the water, forcing my legs lower and moving me away from the flat, streamlined shape I should be aiming for. I'm not rotating from side to side, which means I'm breathing poorly and exhaling out of the water rather than into it and I'm struggling to catch my breath, which might be why my head is too high. My arms aren't bending properly at the elbow so I'm not engaging my triceps or lats and I need to keep the palms of my hands facing the wall I'm swimming away from. Finally, I appear to be missing out on a proper recovery with my arms and I'm kicking too hard and too deep with my legs. 

On the plus side, my ankles are quite flexible, which isn't always the case with runners, so all is not lost. After 30 minutes of drills to demonstrate the elements of my stroke that need the most immediate attention the practical lesson ends. I am a more limited swimmer than I imagined, but I have hope. Bullock's advice is to focus on my body position in the water to reduce drag, to work on my mechanics so that I hold the water better and propel myself further on each stroke.

"If you watch the best swimmers in a race you'll notice that they don't necessarily have a higher stroke rate, they just move further with each stroke," says Bullock. "The more distance you travel per stroke, the fewer strokes you'll take over the same distance and the less energy you need to cover the distance. That's particularly important in triathlons because if you can exit the water using less energy than the swimmers around you, you're in better shape for the bike. It's a good idea to start counting the number of strokes you do per length and then try to bring the number down as each stroke becomes more effective."

Imagine you're a fish

I know I have a lot of work to do but again Bullock reassures me that with a commitment to swim at least three times a week and frequent, but not necessarily constant, coaching, there's no reason I can't learn the basic mechanics of a smooth, effortless stroke inside six months. 

With swimming, training smarter is far more important than training harder. Although the pool is the best place to develop a smooth, effortless stroke, the process can start before you even put on your swimsuit by making a plan, sticking to it, and not expecting miracles. 

There's been too much technical information to take in for one day, but I'm left with a very strong image in my head of gliding through the water, flat and perfectly streamlined. In fact, if I close my eyes and try to visualise for a moment it almost seems like I'm a fish. 


How to make the swim suit

Follow these tips to improve your ability and confidence in the water.

Commit to the crawl

There are no rules to stop you swimming breaststroke or backstroke in a triathlon - and you'll see plenty of people doing exactly that in lots of races - but if you want to exit the water in the quickest time possible while using the least amount of energy, then it's time to learn the front crawl. It's the fastest, smoothest and most efficient of the major swimming strokes and it's
an essential skill if your ambition in the water is more than
simple survival.

Make the time

Aspiring Olympians swim three hours a day, six days a week. Since you have three sports to train for and a life to live, you can forget the Olympics. Nevertheless, it's difficult to make significant progress without consistent training. Your aim should be a minimum of three 30-minute sessions a week and more if you have the time or the ambition, or your goal requires it. Generally, more shorter sessions are better than fewer longer ones.

Get into gear

Swimming is not heavy on its equipment essentials but there are a few items you can't do without, even in a pool. Start with your swimsuit; opt for a one-piece unit that fits closely to your figure and creates minimal drag. Add a pair of goggles that fit your head and don't leak or fog and, finally, a set of mini swim fins, which are useful for a number of key technique drills. Worry about a wetsuit when you venture out into open water.

Technique first, fitness second

For most novice triathletes, a 30-minute session focusing on your technique will reap more long-term benefits than a flat-out 30-minute endurance session. Once you feel comfortable with the technical aspects of your stroke, you can start to work on your fitness and endurance. Simply banging out harder sessions with poor technique is wasted effort. If you can cover the same distance at the same speed while using fewer strokes and less energy, then you are still making progress.

Develop a feel for the water

This is one of those nebulous concepts that non-swimmers find difficult to understand but which becomes more apparent the more you swim. Start by simply floating and gliding through the water to understand the difference between a streamlined position and one where you are creating drag. Then move your hands through the water; try to feel the pressure you can exert when you catch the water and pull yourself forward. Once you start swimming, try to keep these thoughts in your head. As you feel more comfortable with the movement of your body in the water, the whole environment will feel less alien.

Break it down 

It might look simple when executed by a Michael Phelps, but the classic freestyle stroke is complex.
Don't try to change everything at once. The key to developing a better stroke is breaking it down into small, manageable chunks and focusing on one element at a time, whether it's the movement of your legs, bilateral breathing or the entry of your hands into the water. 

Change takes time 

Small stroke changes can reap enormous benefits, but it takes a long time to make one of those alterations a permanent improvement. It can, for example, take 20,000 repetitions of a movement before it feels natural and instinctive. Don't be disheartened if your progress seems to be slow - stick with it and keep repeating the drills. Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent.

Get some help

Books, magazines and DVDs are helpful but they can only take you so far. At some point you'll need to find someone to watch you swim and offer you feedback on what you should and shouldn't be doing. At the lowest level this might be a training partner but ideally you should seek out a qualified swim coach. The easiest place to find one is at a triathlon club (go to www.britishtriathlon.org/clubs) although there are also a number of more individual and expensive options available. Try www.swimfortri.com or www.rickkiddle.com for personal coaching.

Seek out the open spaces

You can't learn to swim if you don't jump into the water and you can't expect to race in an open-water event if you don't practice in open water. Most open-water venues re-open after the winter in April or May but start early with an organised training group. Other than dealing with the colder water, your new wetsuit and the fear of being alone in a big, watery space, swimming in open water requires a modified set of physical skills.


The perfect stroke

Arms 

Your arm should stay fully extended for a brief moment before catching the water. Catch with the whole of the forearm and hand, making sure your elbow is higher than your forearm and hand. Your arm should pick up speed throughout the stroke, right up to the point of exit, when your hand passes your hip. 

Try to keep it close to your body for streamlining. Your hand breaks the water at a point inside the shoulder line but it shouldn't cross your body. Your arm should be extended, but not straight at the time your hand is submerged - it only fully extends under the water. Once your arm is pushing back (when the hand has passed the elbow), the elbow begins to straighten. Keep your fingertips down when pulling through the water. When your arm exits the water, your elbow immediately begins to flex again, staying high, with your hand close to your body.

Beginners often make the mistake of not relaxing the arm during the recovery and of moving the hand too high and too far away from the body, in some cases even higher than the elbow. Beginners can also forget to use their shoulders to let the hand enter the water as far forward as possible.

Legs

Although the legs provide little of your forward momentum, they help to keep your body stable and streamlined in the water. Try to kick from the hip with straight legs or slightly bent at the knee with the foot downwards as if you were kicking a football. 

Keep your ankles soft and floppy, not stiff. Aim to bend the legs inwards slightly and try to brush the big toes together. A frequent beginners' mistake is to bend the legs too much or to kick too much out of the water.

Breathing

Few elements of swimming bother beginners more than breathing. Your face should be in the water, with your eyes looking at the lower part of the wall in front of the pool. The waterline should meet your head between the top of your goggles and your crown. 

Breathe out through your mouth and nose while your head is underwater (holding your breath only makes the stroke tougher), then rotate your head at 45 degrees to the side of the recovering arm and take a breath in the bow wave between your upper arm, lower arm and the waterline. Most beginners find it easier to breathe on every second stroke, but practice breathing on every third stroke so that you're breathing on both sides. 


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