The importance of open water swim training before your race

Getting into open water early in the season is a benefit to any triathlete, regardless of ability. Since this is where we’ll be doing most of our racing, it makes sense to put those winter training lengths to effective use and continue the work in the open water.

Many experienced athletes look forward to this time of year. Having spent many a winter month tile-counting your way up and down your local pool, it’s refreshing to get back into the open water, being able to swim without constant turning, not sharing your lane with ‘that guy’ who always pushes off to do breaststroke just as you come to turn. Open water is also the place to get back into swimming in your wetsuit, reminding yourself of the changes to buoyancy, position in the water, and how you need to adapt your stroke for optimal performance. And, let’s face it we probably all need to work on a little sighting and swimming in a straight line having followed the one on the bottom off the pool during off-season.

For beginner athletes, it’s arguably more important to get into the water as long before your race as possible. Ask most beginner athletes what their biggest concerns are heading into doing a triathlon for the first time, and they’ll most likely say; “the swim”. Open water can seem intimidating; the cooler temperatures are possibly the hardest to get used to. UK lakes are usually between 12-22 degrees depending on the time of year, compared to the average fitness pool around 28 °C. Other common concerns are losing the safety net of being able to touch the bottom or be close to the edge, the dark, murky and disorientating environment and in particular the idea of mass starts and swimming in large numbers of people. The longer you give yourself to acclimatise to this environment, the sooner you’ll conquer your fears and realise how wonderful it is to be outside, swimming in nature. It’s pretty awesome, trust us.

Coached sessions will give you a safe and welcoming environment to get into open water swimming, surrounded by other people who are all in exactly the same position as you. There’s a lot to consider that will make your open water swimming easier and your whole triathlon experience a lot more enjoyable.

Coaches can show you how to put on your wetsuit properly so that you look after it, and it fits your body properly, acting as a second skin, providing the buoyancy and warmth that it’s supposed to. Simple tips to prepare yourself for each swim, how to warm up and acclimate to the water since they can vary in temperature and water clarity depending on their depth, the water that’s fed into them and the composition of the bottom, i.e. muddy will usually mean murky.

Here are some of our top open water tips:

  • Get the right suit – While the world of wetsuits can be confusing and expensive. The most important thing is that you have the right kind of suit. Swim/Triathlon wetsuits are very specific to the requirements for swimming in the way their constructed, so that they offer maximum buoyancy while allowing freedom of movement in the shoulders and being fast in the water.
  • Fit is key – Second to finding the right suit, making sure it’s tight enough is important, since it needs to fit like a second skin, keeping only a tiny layer of water for warmth and making you as streamlined in the water as possible. Buying too big could mean your suit is lose around the cuffs with excess material at the shoulders and knees, which will allow in extra water, making it harder to stay warm, and making the suit feel ‘baggy’ in the water.
  • Putting it on right – take care when you put your suit on to prevent damaging the outer rubber, especially from nails. Feed the suit gently up each limb, pulling excess material up a few centimetres at a time, ensuring a snug fit. Once your suit is on, massage excess material from the hips and torso, up into the shoulder for maximum flexibility.
  • Flush your suit – When you first get in you’ll need to get water into your suit, since wetsuits work by being ‘wet’. You need to get that layer of water all around the suit. Flush a load of water into the neck of the suit and as this fills the suit, use this as another opportunity to improve the fit. Excess water should flush out naturally as you start to swim.
  • Focus on your breathing – In colder water combined with the compression of the suit, it’s likely you’ll breath shallower and more quickly. Spend the first few minutes focusing on your breathing, and letting this determine your stroke rate. Get your breathing under control, everything else will follow.
  • Relax and rotate – Since the suit provides so much buoyancy, much less of your physical effort needs to go into staying afloat, meaning you can focus purely on propulsion. Start by slowing your stroke rate down, kicking less aggressively and allowing lots of rotation from your hips. Since the power in your stroke comes from rotation, better rotation should mean faster swimming.
  • Sighting is key – The quickest distance to the swim exit is a straight line. And very few of us swim straight without something to navigate on. Don’t’ sight and breath at the same time as you’ll lift too much of your head out of the water, instead sight just before, or between your breaths, lifting just your eyes out of the water. Sighting every 4-8 strokes should be enough.
  • Don’t just swim at one pace – It’s easy to fall into the trap of just getting in and swimming. However, just as with a pool set, or track session, breaking your open water swimming down to focus on different elements will be much more effective. Use a little drill work to get you warmed up e.g. 1-arm freestyle, 6-1-6. Then practice swimming at different efforts, especially getting used to swimming aerobic, following some threshold work. This will replicate fatigue and loss in technique that can occur when you’re tired in a race.
  • Swim with others – This will add some enjoyment and confidence to your swimming, being around other people of similar ability. But it’s also great for developing your open water skills. Learning to swim in close proximity to others will make it less of an issue when you race, bumping into others and swimming in churned up water, while a little disorientating, soon becomes something you aren’t phased by.
  • It’s ok to draft! – Yes, in the swim you’re allowed to draft, and it’ll save you a lot of energy. Practice swimming behind other people of similar speed. Work with them taking turns to lead each other out. It’ll improve your confidence and race craft.

RGActive run open water coaching sessions, practice races and triathlon training days to help athletes of all abilities. To find out more, check out the coaching/training section of our website.

Coach Phil

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