Open-Water Masterclass with Keri-Anne Payne

Open-water can seem daunting for even the most experienced swimmers. So an open-water masterclass with one of the best in the business, World Champion and Olympic silver medalist Keri-Anne Payne, was snapped up by a group of keen triathletes.

Over the course of an hour we watched Keri-Anne demonstrate and explain the techniques that’ll take you from open-water zero to hero. Although it’ll take some practice to imitate the skill shown by Keri-Anne, we thought we’d share some of her best advice before the tri season starts.

Goggles

1 Be prepared
Think like a boy scout and ‘be prepared’ for whatever challenges the weather may throw at you. Pack three sets of goggles in your kit bag to cover all race day eventualities; a mirrored pair (sunny weather), a clear pair (cloudy weather) and a pale blue/yellow tinted pair (for if it’s neither sunny or cloudy).

2 A secure fit
Keri-Anne recommends putting your goggles on underneath your swimming cap – that way they’re more secure and less likely to get knocked out of place in the open-water hustle.

3 Out in the open
If your goggles slip or get knocked out of place during the swim, don’t panic. Keep swimming while you adjust them, otherwise Keri-Anne warns you’ll lose valuable time. Flip on to your back, so you can check no one’s going to swim into you, and continue to kick hard with your legs as you reposition the goggles. Before you turn back on to your front to play catch up, sight to make sure you’re still going in the right direction.

Picture credit: Floresco Productions/ Getty Images

Drafting

4 Essential race skill
Keri-Anne’s race tactic is to lead from the front, so she doesn’t need to draft. For the rest of us mere swimming mortals, drafting is an excellent way to save energy and time. You’ll be swimming in a slipstream (an air pocket of lesser resistance) and letting the person in front do the hard work.

There are two ways to draft:

On someone’s side: Your hand should be hitting the water at around their hip level (mental image: think of a calf swimming next to the mother whale).

Directly behind: Your hands should almost be hitting someone’s feet. Try to swim at their rhythm. Don’t worry if you occasionally hit someone’s feet – it’s expected in open-water. Also, remember to keep sighting as you draft.

Practise both methods in the pool with a friend so you’ll feel comfortable once you’re racing in the open water.

Sighting

5 Make it natural
Effective sighting (checking where you are) will help you follow the most efficient route to the finish. Stopping mid-stroke will waste time and if you don’t do it often it enough, you could swim off course.

Keri-Anne’s tip is to make sighting a natural part of your stroke. When you turn your head to breathe, look forwards briefly and scan the horizon. Try to sight every few breaths and practise doing this in the pool so it feels normal.

6 Look out for other race landmarks
Don’t just rely on the buoys, look for other landmarks – Keri-Anne mentioned trees, buildings and bridges. Sometimes it’s possible to mistake other swimmers caps for buoys and this can send you off course, so keep a lookout for more static visual clues. Another top tip is to refrain from blindly following the swimmer in front – they might not be swimming in the right direction.   

Breathing

7 Master both sides
Everyone will have a side they breathe on most naturally, but the trick is to master both. Keri-Anne warns that depending on the current, waves can batter you from one side – in which case you’ll want to breathe from the other.

Starting the race

8 Get into position
If the race starts in the water, get into a position ready to go as soon as the whistle blasts. To do this:

  • Float on your front, with you arms bobbing gently at the side to stay still. Kick your heels gently.
  • It’ll be tricky to get into this position if you’re at the back of your wave. Make sure you get to the front. Other swimmers will quickly avoid you once you’re in this position - they won’t want to get kicked.

9 Start fast, then slow

The adrenaline and nerves at the start of a race can make you set off faster than usual. Factor this into your race plan. Keri-Anne says she plans to take the five strokes as quickly as possible to get away from the rest of the pack – but then she actively plans to slow the pace. This stops her burning out too fast.

The finish

10 Legs into action

The swim finish is in sight. If you’re doing a triathlon you’ll need to warm your legs up for the cycle stage – and if it’s a solo swim, you may still need to run for the finish line.

As you near the finish kick harder with your legs to get the blood pumping to them. This should help lessen the ‘wobbly’ feeling you get when you come out of the water.

11 Start running

If you finish on a beach or have to run rather than climb out of the water, start as soon as the water is just below your knees to save time.

Picture credit: Per Breiehagen/ Getty Images

Wetsuits

12 Match your needs
Get the wetsuit to match your needs. Wetsuits for elite swimmers and triathletes are thinner and designed to get your body in perfect alignment. Wetsuits for beginners are thicker and designed to stabilise you and make you more buoyant. Get the suit to match your needs, which won’t necessarily be the most expensive.

13 Carefully does it
Put your wetsuit on carefully – it’s an expensive piece of kit to rip. You can even buy special gloves for putting on the suit (especially useful if you have long or sharp nails).

14 One size doesn’t fit all
Neither does one brand. Try on several sizes and brands until you get the right fit.

15 Easy off
During your triathlon, start taking your suit off as soon as you exit the water. As you run zip down and pull off the top half. Remove the rest once you reach your bike.

Picture credit: Mike Svoboda/ Getty Images

Lessons

16 Coaching
Include all the open-water skills above in your swim sessions for maximum effect. And remember that the most important thing is to have an efficient front crawl. A few focused swimming lessons with a coach before the season starts could shave seconds or even minutes off your time.

Keri-Anne Payne is a Speedo athlete and was leading the Speedo Secret swim at Virgin Active’s Broadgate club as part of the Virgin Active London Triathlon Secret Series of training events. For great swim and other triathlon training tips visit. London Triathlon at www.youtube.com/londontri and www.thelondontriathlon.com.