Open Water Swim Training
When training for triathlons would you do all your run training on a treadmill or all your bike miles on a stationary trainer? Probably not, so it makes sense to get in the open water if you want to be a better triathlon swimmer. Safety, skill development and well thought out training sessions will get you out of the water faster and with more energy to put toward the other two events. Too often, athletes get in the water with no plan, and just swim. This is not the best use of swim time, and will do little to improve race times.
Triathlons are rarely won in the water, but you can easily fall hopelessly behind with a less than stellar swim leg. The goal of open water training is to do workouts simulating the race conditions in which you will race.
The most important consideration is safety. You should never swim alone into open water for obvious reasons. Getting a small group together for swim sessions is a good option, as well as having a canoe or kayak escort. The key is being creative and safe when putting you open water workouts together. If you have no other option than to swim in open water alone, then stay in waist deep water for added safety.
In order to get the most out of your open water forays, you need to conduct an honest needs assessment of your open water swim skills. These may include the following questions:
1. Are you over anxious at the swim start?
2. Does starting the race with many other swimmers in close quarters create anxiety?
3. How well do you run into the water and exit the swim chute?
4. How are your swim drafting skills?
5. Do you find yourself zig-zagging around the course?
6. Are you comfortable breathing on both sides?
Answering these questions honestly will give you some hints on how to structure you open water sessions for maximal results. If you answered “yes” to question one or two, then doing some short repeats (25 yds. out, and around a buoy) with 3 to 4 other swimmers will get you used to the bumping and close quarters of the swim start. This will also give you practice turning buoys with other swimmers.
Starts and finishes are an easy way to gain time on the competition. You need to be competent with all types of starts (deep water, knee or waist deep, beach start or off a boat, wall or dock). Having your goggles fly off or going anaerobic before you have taken a stroke is not a great way to start a race. Start or end each open water session with 3-4 starts. Enter the water and sprint 25 yards. Then do easy back or breastroke back to the start.
Drafting in the swim leg of a triathlon is legal, and a great way to swim faster with less effort. If you draft, periodically do sighting checks to make sure you are swimming in the correct direction. Learn to swim in the bubblers without hitting the lead athletes toes. Doing this too often will land a foot to the face, since some don’t like giving a free ride to other swimmers. In training, you can form a pace line of 2-3 swimmers, rotating the lead position.
One of the easiest ways to swim faster in the open water is to swim straight. Since oceans and lakes don’t have lane lines, you may not be swimming as straight as you think. This skill comes from constant practice, and swimming with an even stroke on both sides. One practice drill is to set up 2 small buoys (milk jugs with an attached weight works well) 50 to 100 yds. apart. Look up to sight the buoy every 5 to 10 strokes, to make sure you are not off course. Once you get used to this drill, sighting orange buoys gets real easy.
If you only swim while breathing to one side, you may not swim straight, due to an asymmetrical stroke. This may also cause problems with waves, chop and sun. It helps to have options in breathing based on the direction the swim is designed. It’s generally wise to breathe on the side facing the buoy line. Practice this both in the pool and open water.
Race simulation swim sessions are a great way to prepare for race season. This is an ideal time to develop an efficient race day warm up. Here is a sample session for an Olympic distance race simulation.
⎫ 5 min easy swimming with 3-5 x 10 second pickups.
⎫ 5 min standing on beach to simulate race meeting before start.
⎫ Sprint into water and swim 500 meters (250m out around a buoy and back), and finish with a run 30m up the beach.
⎫ Rest 3 minutes, and repeat swim sequence 2 more times.
⎫ End session with 3-5 min. easy swimming, and taking wetsuit off as you would in transition.
Total workout time is 35 to 40 minutes.
As you can see, with a bit of thought, you can turn those endless swim laps into faster race times. These swim workouts can be done prior to a run or bike workout for an excellent combination session.