Swimming in anything but the pool can be quite scary even for advanced swimmers. I admit, I have cried into my goggles plenty of times with visions of Jaws circling me underneath and is probably a part of my race plan. The quicker I swim – the less chance I have of getting eaten by a shark. But with anything the more you practice, the less intimidating it becomes and the better you get. Here are my 5 favourite drills to help you prepare for swimming in the Open Water.
Practice your starts
Before you race it is a good idea to check out the swim course and see if it is a beach or deep water start. A beach start is when you start on the sand and run into the water; it is most common in short distance races and is known for some impressive face plants. It is a good idea before your race to walk into the water and identify where the sand bank is and how far you can run before you need to start swimming. By counting the number of steps from the start line until it is too deep, will prevent you from diving too early and swimming in the shallow while other athletes attempt to swim over the top of you.
Deep Water Starts are more common in long distance events. It amazes me when I see people floating vertically in the water when the gun is about to go in 5 seconds. If you want the best start, position yourself so you are floating on your tummy horizontally in the water, with legs fully extended behind you and a wide sculling motion with your arms. This ensures you will at least get a full body length between you and the person behind you and some distance either side. When there is 10 seconds to go, roll onto your side and have a lead arm out in front, and the other by your side. When the gun goes off, fling the arm by your side over, pull the leading arm down and under, while giving a big scissor kick to start your stroke straight away. Complete 10 fast strokes to get you away from the rest of the pack. You will save a good 3-5 seconds and you will have a smoother and quicker start in the water compared to being vertical.
If you were to practice one open water drill make it sighting, it has the potential to save you the most time in a race when done correctly. If you are not an efficient sighter and rely on other swimmers, you can easily swim an extra 200-300m. Nobody wants to be swimming more than they have to!
Many age group triathletes try and lift their head to sight and breathe at the same time. This is a very poor technique as lifting your head high enough to breathe will cause your hips and legs to drop which increases your drag. When sighting frequently this technique slows you down considerably as it is a “stop/start” technique.
Paul Newsome from Swim Smooth says to become efficient at sighting, we must master the “sight - turn – breathe” technique. To sight efficiently you should time your sighting just before you're going to take a breath. So if you're about to breathe to your left, lift your eyes out of the water just before pressing down lightly on the water with your lead arm (in this case it'll be your left). Only lift up enough to get your eyes just out of the water. Then turn your head to the left to breathe, as you do so, letting it drop down into the water to a normal position. You might not see much with one glance, but over several strokes you will build up a picture in your mind of where you are going. Depending on the conditions you want to try and sight every 8-10 strokes to avoid going off course.
Drafting can save you 18 to 25% of the energy expenditure of swimming. If you want to become good at drafting then you need to practice in the pool. There are two types of drafting techniques:
This is the traditional way of drafting and requires you to be directly behind the swimmer in front. If you get to close, and tap their feet or push down on their calves you may get a kick in the face in return. Although this position is effective, it makes it quite hard to do your own sighting. Be aware, if you follow the bubbles the lead swimmer may take you off course.
Swimming to the side
This technique requires much more skill but can be even more effective than swimming behind, and you are able to sight yourself. You want to be swimming to the side and slightly behind so your head is in line with their chest. You get a drafting benefit because you are still swimming in their wake which extends to the side of them. Practice in pairs or in groups of three in the pool. By breathing towards the person leading, you are able to time the stroke so you are not clashing arms, and you can keep an eye on them to stay nice and close and get the most benefit.
Swimming in a large group
The mass swim start is what most people get anxious about in the swim leg, not the distance. People kicking, splashing, pulling, grabbing in a small space of water is uncomfortable and often described as a washing machine. But by swimming in large groups at training, this will help you get used to the uncomfortable feeling which will help your anxiety on race day. Practice it often, get a couple of friends to swim next to you in the same lane or practice it regularly with your triathlon/swimming club.
When doing breathing drills or hypoxic breathing most people tend to hold their breath for the entire time, then explode the air out of their lungs just before they are about to take another breath. Holding your breath underwater is bad for your swimming not only because it increases CO2 levels which may cause headaches, nausea, and blackouts, but it increases the buoyancy in your chest which lifts you up at the front and sinks the legs. Doing Exhalation Control sets allows you to develop good technique and realise how much air you have in the lungs to exhale. If you miss a breath in the open water swim, it gives you confidence that you can exhale a little longer, complete another stroke to rotate and breathe on the other side without panicking and inhaling water. Try breathing every 3, 5, 7 strokes over a short distance of 50m with 10 seconds rest at the end x 4-6. Just like in your normal stroke, never ever hold your breath - just reduce the rate of exhalation (slow bubbles into the water).
You should be practicing your open water drills all year round – not just the week before your race. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel and more likely you will be exiting the swim with a smile on your face, not by the lifeguard boat. Happy Swimming!