Top Tips for nailing your swim
Picture this, you’ve trained as best as you can, you’ve practiced, you’ve bricked, you’ve joined groups, you’ve bought the right kit, you had a great night’s sleep, a good breakfast and you’ve been hydrating well for the last 48 hours. Conditions are perfect for having the race of your life.
So there you are, on the start line, heart racing, limbs itching to move and the starter gun goes. Suddenly the water erupts like a volcano, arms, legs and cold water exploding upwards, blinding your view of that big inflatable bobber and those safety kayaks. You freeze for a moment as your mind comes to terms with what you’ve done; you’ve chosen to put yourself in that storm…
For an experienced athlete, these moments are routine. They are able to harness the adrenaline, ignore any thoughts of danger and risk, and confidently follow their plan of attack. For those athletes who are less experienced at racing and taking part in events, swim starts, and possibly the entire swim, can make the difference between a good and bad triathlon experience.
Don’t be fooled however into thinking that an experienced athlete is one that has just taken part in loads of events. Having 20+ triathlons under your belt doesn’t make you a hardened open water swimmer. Experience comes with focused practice in the exact conditions you will face - adrenaline, the fight or flight mechanism, the eruption, flying limbs, sighting issues etc etc - all of these things will happen in a triathlon but you can train to control your reaction to it.
Read our top tips for nailing your triathlon swim and finding your groove early on in your race:
1. Dive in, dive in again, dive in some more
We meet many athletes who dislike the swim part so much that naturally they try to avoid it as much as possible, limiting themselves to one or two races a year. This is a little like only going to the dentist when you are in severe pain. As a result, your experience of the dentist becomes associated with pain. Similarly, your experience of races can easily be associated with the sheer terror of the swim start, which doesn’t help anyone to give their event their best shot.
Instead, we recommend taking every opportunity you can to race, even in those little club races that aren’t that important to your overall goal. The more you experience the discomfort of the swim start, the less the fear of discomfort will control your ability to perform the way you want to.
2. Recreate the ‘Surge’
As well as trying to race regularly, swim starts can be practiced in environments that feel a little more friendly, thus giving you the chance to experiment with race tactics and controlling those ‘I can’t do this’ thoughts. With a group of 3 or more fellow swimmers and triathletes, visit your open water venue and practice those first few
moments of the race start; we call it the Surge. Here’s how:
Identify a short circuit to work within, including marker points to swim to (ideally a 50-100m going out and something to turn around).
Identify a start line and position yourselves in as tight a bunch as possible, just like you might have to do on race day.
Select someone in the group to shout ‘3, 2, 1, GO!’ and force yourselves to surge quickly into the water. If you know your upcoming race is an in-water start, then you can do this from a tread-water position.
Once you’ve heard the ‘GO!’, focus on performing 50 hard strokes. And by ‘hard’ we mean Hard! It should feel uncomfortable with arms and legs turning over as quickly as you can get them. This not only helps you to find a position, ideally in front of the main pack, from the main but the action of counting helps to focus your mind on the internal, not the external.
Practicing the Surge helps build your immunity to the adrenaline rush, the splashing, the sight of swimmer’s limbs crashing through the water all around you and helps develop the all important skill of focusing your mind on your stroke. If the swim start is something that concerns you, practice weekly in the lead up to your main event. By the time you get to the real start line, you’ll know exactly what to do.
3. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
It’s natural to fear contact with other swimmers during the swim. Thoughts of being hit, dunked or losing goggles during the chaos of the swim start is enough to put anyone off triathlon. However, as with most things in life, the fear is often much worse than the reality. Again, the key to overcoming the fear is to practice and make sure you the practical tools to help you keep swimming.
With your group of swimmers / triathletes, find a short swim loop in your open water venue and role-play a little rufty-tufty with one another. This is not the opportunity to let off steam or seek revenge on a secret enemy, but a chance to experience some of what you fear and to build the mental and practical skills for staying calm and carrying on.
Scenarios like not having enough room to move your arms around freely, having another swimmer bump into you, having your goggles displaced, needing to change direction and move out of the swimmer-sandwich you’re stuck in, are all potential scenarios that as a triathlete, you are highly likely to experience at some point, unless you plan to be the last person to enter the water for each race.
As a small group, practice swimming really close to one another, touching each others shoulders, heads, feet. Try moving around each other and trying to change direction, all while not stopping swimming or losing your focus. Finally, practice stopping mid swim, taking your goggles off and then putting them back on. It can feel a bit awkward to start with but the more you practice the easier you’ll find putting goggles on while suspended in open water.
The more you practice some of the scenarios above, the more you will realise that even if the worst does happen, you can remain calm, in control and continue on your path to success.
4. Sight, breathe, repeat
Once the hustle and bustle of the initial start is over, it’s typical to have found a position within the swim pack that you settle into. You may have a swimmer to your side, typically to the side you breathe to, and someone in front that might be giving you a decent tow. Do not become complacent! That swimmer to your side might be relying on you to lead the direction. That swimmer in front might be the swimmer that the safety kayaks have to continually push back on track, theres usually always one. Even if you’ve made the decision to swim with your friend during the event, rely only on your eyes and no one else’s for the entire duration of your swim.
Sighting can take a swimmer years to perfect but is so often overlooked. As coaches and event organisers, we take this very seriously. Not only does the inability to swim in a straight line and sight regularly add another few hundred metres onto your swim, but it puts other swimmers at risk because you may be that person swimming in completely the opposite direction to them. It also forces safety kayaks to draw themselves away from the main pack to come and fetch you because you’re swimming out to sea, thus leaving the main pack short of safety cover. Remember, safety kayaks are there to help in the event of swimmers getting into danger, they are not there to help you swim in the right direction.
If you really struggle swimming in a straight line, it might be time to seek help from a swim coach. Snaking through the water is a sign of not being streamlined in the water, resulting in arms crossing over the midline of your body and a distinct scissor kick to counter being off-balance. If sighting is your biggest issue I.e. you forget to do it, you don’t know how to do it, you struggle doing it, read on:
Firstly, and most importantly, locate your sighting markers before you get in the water. On race day, you will have large inflatable buoys and / or safety kayaks. However, it’s always advisable to find a fixed mark on the horizon in the event that you aren’t able to see the inflatables during the hustle-bustle. This fixed mark, a building for example, will help you move yourself in the right direction towards the first swim marker. During practice sessions simply pick out fixed markers on the horizon e.g. a building, a tower or even an anchored fishing boat.
Good sighting is a smooth, fluid action that does not disrupt the rhythm of your stroke. Practice the ‘crocodile eyes’ action of simply lifting your head until your eyes emerge above the water line, or enough for you to see the horizon, and then turn for your breath. Crocodile eyes typically takes place just before you take your breath but if it feels more natural, it’s not a problem to sight in between your breaths e.g. stroke, stroke - sight - stroke, stroke - breathe. Practice the action, and find the rhythm that works for you.
Don’t panic if you don’t manage to see your sighting marker at first sight. So many swimmers stop and revert to breaststroke in order to make sure they can see their marker, thus completely disrupting the rhythm of the stroke and making their swim much harder due to all the stopping and starting. If you don’t see your marker right away, simply take another 2-3 strokes and give it another try.
Play with the frequency of your sighting. Race day might bring flat-calm conditions that, provided you have good technique and know you can swim in a straight line, only require sighting every 8 - 10 strokes. However, in the event that you have choppy conditions, you may find you need to sight every 3-4 strokes. Practice different frequencies to make sure you can maintain your stroke rhythm and technique, no matter what the conditions
Good practice is to sight regularly during an event, even if it feels alien. Open water swim events can be unpredictable with a whole host of scenarios potentially unfolding in front of you including a swimmer in the lead pack getting it completely wrong and pulling all swimmers off course. This can happen! Sight, breathe, repeat.
5. Embrace the open water
The open water provokes much fear and anxiety among triathletes. Of course, it is the most dangerous part of the triathlon, hence being the first discipline in an event, and of all the activities in a triathlon, it requires the most skill and technique. However, despite the potential risks, swimming in the open water is, we think, one of the most exciting parts of a triathlon event, and one of the most pleasurable elements of your training.
Rather that fearing it, triathlon success comes when you learn to respect and admire it. It’s cold, it can be dark, it reacts to wind and tides but it is not a triathletes enemy. With practice, skill and technique, the only thing stopping us from having a really great swim is often our own heads so find a group, find your favourite spot and go discover its pleasure.
Join Try A Tri Guernsey coaches and community for open water swim practice every Wednesday evening at 6.30pm during May and October every year. Locations announce via Facebook 24 hours before.