May 2018 - TRIATHLON
Open Water Swimming Tips
By Meisha Rosenberg
You’re about to take a breath in the middle of a lake during a race when a wave hits you; suddenly you’ve got a mouthful of water. Or your goggles fill up with water. What should you do? Well, you could panic or you could prepare for this situation and many others by training your body and mind for open water swimming. As a Masters swimmer who’s competed in open water races, I know one of the best teachers is experience. At the same time, you should learn from as many of the pros as you can. I will share some things I’ve learned both from trial and error and from the wonderful coaching I’ve had right in the Capital Region.
Training, Training and More Training – In an ideal world, you’d be able to swim your race distance multiple times at the site before race day. Since not all lakes or beaches allow access, that can be difficult, but the more you practice in open water AND in the pool, the better. Take advantage of the many weekly practice swims we are lucky to have through area triathlon clubs: Capital District, Bethlehem, Saratoga, Adirondack and Hudson Valley.
Kristen Hislop, a certified multisport coach, gives swim clinics both in the pool and outdoors. She reports that many triathletes haven’t thought much about the swim. She says, “I always start with being efficient and comfortable in the water. So that’s what we do in the pool before you even go into open water.”
In a pool, you can learn to streamline, count and tame your stroke rate, and breathe properly. Many open water swimmers use bilateral breathing, which means taking a breath every third stroke by alternating left and right sides. Once you’ve learned how to breathe without messing up your streamline, you can go on to learn things like how to sight, which is raising your eyes just enough to see buoys and landmarks without throwing off your rhythm.
It all comes down to training your mind in tandem with your muscles. This means having a plan for each segment of the race, including how you will start. Kevin Kearney at Excel Aquatics, says that at starts, “People like to bunch up in the middle because they think that’s the straightest line to the buoy, but a lot of times you can go off to the side and get cleaner water.” Once you’re cruising along, though, you have an advantage if you know how to pass someone else. You can learn passing and drafting, among other techniques. If you draft, make sure the swimmer in front knows where they’re going! When you’ve practiced these techniques, you’re less likely to be spooked if another swimmer drafts off or passes you.
Most importantly, through interval training, that is doing timed repeats of specified distances in a pool or open water, you’ll gain control over your exertion and speed the same way bikers do by using gears. Any good coach will have you do this. Learn about pacing because there’s nothing worse than going into a longer race, overextending yourself the first couple of minutes and hitting the wall for the remainder of the swim. Beginners often go too fast too soon because they let the adrenaline do the talking.
On the other hand, experienced swimmers may want to start fast before settling into a better pace. Just as the ancient Greeks said it: swimmer, know thyself. Are you regularly putting in 3,000 yards of training so that one-mile will be a cinch? Or, is this your first race and you dislike crowds? The more you know, whether it’s how much your body heats up, or what side you favor, the more tools you’ll have on race day.
Mind Over Water – Regardless of experience, many swimmers feel anxiety or panic in open water. There are lots of unknowns; and often you can’t see or hear too well. It helps to identify exactly what you are afraid of, and either think through how you can handle it if it happens (i.e. you can stop and tread water if you get a bad cramp), or realize it’s irrational (there is NO Loch Ness monster in Warner Lake!). One great thing about water is that floating promotes relaxation.
Triathlon coach and race director Mark Wilson says, “One of the keys to surviving the swim start in triathlon is to WARM UP in the water BEFORE your wave begins. This will help your body/skin acclimate to water’s temperature prior to the start of the race. This will assist in keeping your heart rate down, and anxiety levels lower, ensuring a positive beginning to a long race.”
Kevin says, “Listen to your body, and know if you do feel the elevated heart rate, you can flip on your back and float – or grab onto a kayak. Don’t wait until you’re in trouble to ask for help.” Kristen will have swimmers fill up their goggles with water in the middle of a pool to simulate a real predicament. It’s also important to have some good self-talk lined up for when you’re out there in the waves. I often mentally hear my coaches’ favorite exhortations.
Gearheads, Unite – An open water swimmer must be part sports psychologist, part numbers cruncher, part meteorologist and part gearhead. But don’t pick race day to try out a new pair of goggles. Do get goggles with tinting, possibly mirrored or polarized. You may want a lighter backup pair in the event that it’s overcast. Decide as much ahead of time as you can. Will you wear goggles under your cap where they’re less likely to move around or over so it’s easier to adjust? Some swimmers wear two caps, especially if it’s going to be cold. Conditions will determine some of what you need to do. Then definitely bring ample pre- and post-race cover-ups. There could be gravel or hot asphalt at the transition, so you’ll need flip-flops. Don’t forget sunscreen, caps, towels, and any other items you may need, like glasses, an inhaler, or eye drops. Many triathletes use a wetsuit, and it’s great to try out models at a pool or lake demo – coaches and triathlon clubs can tell you how. Practice wearing it and peeling it off for the transition.
Location, Location, Location – Not all lakes or beaches allow open water swimming days before a race, but take advantage of the many practice swims we are lucky to have regionally. Also, talk to swimmers who’ve done the course. There are many variables to consider. Many triathlon races start around sunrise. So where is the light coming from? Is it coming in front of you or when you breathe? What’s the horizon like around the lake? Are there lots of trees and you can pick one out and sight? Or is there just a flat lake so you really are just looking for the marks? Be aware of any rocks. When should you stand up to exit? Kristen, who has seen athletes fall down on exiting an incline, recommends that, if you’re not kicking a lot which can happen especially in a wetsuit, “Start kicking before you get out, to get the blood flowing again, because it’s a big change from lying horizontally to getting up vertically and then GO.”
Have a strategy ahead of time, planning how hard or easy you’re going to swim the first quarter, second quarter, and so on – and then be ready to adjust. No open water swim is exactly like any other, and water teaches us to go with the flow. But the more you practice, the more you’ll improve and enjoy any swim!
Meisha Rosenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an award-winning writer, avid swimmer and mother to a budding nine-year-old triathlete. She’s competed in the Lake George Open Water Swim; Against the Tide in Brewster (Cape Cod); and Betsy Owens Memorial Lake Swim at Lake Placid.