Swim Secrets

Taking to the open water can be daunting; here's how to feel at home


Posted: 31 March 2010
by Simon Murie

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.

2 Kick

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.

5 Breathing

Front crawl: The ability to breathe solely to either side is a useful technique. It gives you the ability to avoid breathing into swells in choppy conditions. Another advantage is that you can keep an eye on other swimmers or turning buoys/boats whether they are to the right or left.
Drill: If you commonly breathe only to one side, try taking one breath to your other side over a length of swimming. Do this for four lengths. On the next four lengths, take two breaths to your opposite side, and so on until you are taking all your breaths on the opposite side. This may take a number of sessions.
 
Breaststroke: when breathing, keep your chin on the surface of the water to minimise energy expenditure.

6 Sighting

Once outdoors you can't rely on a lane rope or line at the bottom of the pool to ensure you are swimming in a straight line. Instead, pick an object or a distinctive landmark in front of you and aim to swim directly for it.

Varying conditions such as waves, currents and an uneven stroke may sometimes push you off course so it is important to regularly check your marker to ensure you are heading in the right direction. The conditions and the degree to which you can keep to a straight course will affect how often you need to look up. The less you look up the more efficient you will become, but there's no point swimming efficiently in the wrong direction.

Front crawl: It will take a slight adaptation of your stroke to lift your head clear of the water. Lifting your head too much will cause problems for your body position, so you need to be able to do it as effectively as possible. The key is to fit each lift of the head into the natural rhythm of your stroke and only lift as necessary.
Drill:  Select a marker at the end of the pool, such as the clock or timer, as your target. The higher it is on the wall, the less you have to lift your head so the less you will slow down or lose your rhythm. As one arm extends and enters the water at the front of the stroke, begin
to lift your head. Press down with the leading hand to bring your face clear of the water. You can take a breath at this point and orientate yourself at the same time. Drop the head back into the water as the other arm recovers over the water.
 
Breaststroke: For breaststroke swimmers this is not much of a problem, as you will be looking forward every time you lift your head to breathe.

7 Stroke Technique

In choppy water, a lot of swimmers can lose their confidence as well as their rhythm. In these conditions you will need to balance yourself better so you are able to attack the waves instead of being attacked by them.

There are two simple things that you can do to stabilise your stroke in rough conditions. By widening and shortening your stroke you will flatten out your body. A wider stroke is achieved by making your hands enter the water in line with your shoulders and a shorter stroke is achieved by making your hands enter the water closer to your body. These shorter, wider and faster strokes will ensure that rougher conditions don't upset your rhythm and you will feel that you are surging forward rather then being washed backward.

Drill: Swim with front crawl arms and a butterfly leg-kick. This will instinctively make you try to time your arm stroke with your leg kick, otherwise your rhythm will be out. This is good practice for when you are in the waves and you need to slightly change the timing/rhythm of your stroke to be in time with the waves.

8 Swimming in a Pack

Lane swimming in a pool is great for training but it doesn't help when you're coming to race day. In an open-water race you need to be aware of and prepared for the changing environments, such as the melee at the start and turning buoys. Many swimmers new to open water panic when they are faced with legs and elbows, and the hustle and bustle of the race. You can overcome some of these potential problems by practising swimming in confined environments, so you can ensure that when you face these conditions you have some idea of what to expect.

Drills: Try swimming at your pool during especially busy times or gather a group of between three and five swimmers and practise swimming closely bunched together and trying to overtake each other. This is a great way to gain experience in congested water.

9 Change of Pace

Conditioning your body so you can sprint in certain parts of a race, then recover and assume your regular speed and rhythm can benefit you greatly as there will be times (the race start, turning buoys, the finish etc) where a faster pace will be required.
Drill: Fartlek training is a great drill to imitate a race environment - you set out at a constant pace but every five lengths or so you sprint a length. Swim the following four lengths at the initial pace and then sprint again for the tenth. This is carried on until the session is finished. Your sprinting ability can be improved in further sessions by increasing the number of lengths that you sprint (two lengths out of every five, and so on).

10 Transition

Many triathletes are so focused on the three disciplines that the transitions are often neglected. They are a discipline in themselves. In T1 the biggest time-saver is undoubtedly learning how to remove the wetsuit with speed. Practising this will help reduce your race times.


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