Open water: tricks to tame race day waves...
Isn’t it funny that while water can’t tell what age you are, it can make you want to cry like a baby.... chop, swell, rip, break... open water swimming is chock full of challenges that can destroy months of hard training in minutes.
Adjusting technique and mindset to deal with open water swimming conditions is one of the most important skills to master. As Forest Gump's mum pointed out, (and nothing beats a mum for solid coaching) “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”, and open water will always keep you guessing.
Based on good and bad (you really do learn more from the bad) triathlon and multi-sport performances, here’s some open water swim tips to help you stay on top of the chop and churn.
While training in a pool is awesome preparation, open water swimming is a distant relative of pool swimming - like a cheeky second cousin twice removed. Open water is often colder, almost always cloudy with chop or waves and there are no sides, ends or lines to keep things tidy. So, first rule of race prep is spend some time swimming in open water before competing. You don’t have to replicate a course - out and back at your local is a great start.
Make sure you check the tides before planning your training time. The best sea swimming slot is on or before high tide. Swimming too close to low tide means you can face more dangerous tidal streams on the return when energy is already lower. Also be tuned in to the message the weather is sending. If it is blowing a gale and the sea is a herd of white horses, cancel! It’s not worth your safety.
If you have time and access, consider joining an open water group. This will hook you up with expertise, support and motivation. Very experienced triathletes will kindly share knowledge that only comes from race experience - like in choppy conditions think about adapting to a high stroke, early catch and try to find a rhythm that works with the chop. Maybe favour one side or reduce your stroke rate but come up with a way to work with it. Don’t fight it - the water is always bigger than you!
If ocean swimming is a bit daunting, try using fins for extra flotation and a snorkel so there is air on tap while you build confidence. Breathing in choppy water can be hard to adjust to and
the Original Swimmers Snorkel will help remove some of that stress while you get the feel for swimming in different conditions.
Resist peer pressure
Remember the crush of high school corridors at the end-of-day bell? The start line in ocean swimming events can feel very similar! One tip that everyone can implement is to ditch the pack because swimming at someone else’s pace can really throw your game plan.
Consider moving to an area where you don’t feel as boxed in or pushed.
Try to find a rhythm similar to your training pace and get your reach going. Being able to stretch out and hit a familiar tempo is the point at which many experienced triathletes will say they feel like they settled into the race. If it doesn’t come, stay calm and focus on breathing. Aim for consistent, deep breaths in and out. If your breathing is relaxed, your body and mind will follow.
Overtrain in a good way
If your open water swim will be 800 meters, become good at swimming 1,000. Because there are no lanes and the pack can move off course, many open water swims end up being longer than the specified distance. Psychologically it also works wonders to know that you can easily do the race distance.
Swimmers struggle with how monotonous laps can be. Following the black line from one end to the other is taxing on the mind, body and soul. So you’d think it would be a blessing that swimming in open water scratches that persistent line but it also introduces the challenge of staying on course. “Sighting” is where you lift your head periodically to fix on a point of reference. Most often that is a buoy in the water but veteran competitors swear a prominent landmark is far more helpful if there is one handy. The action isn’t natural and is out of step with stroke technique so it pays to practice.
Also invest in a pair of good quality race goggles. Some swimmers swear by having brand new goggles on race days as they don’t fog as much as older ones. Bolt and Lightning competition goggles are comfortable, light, low drag designs built to withstand regular open water outings.
It’s easy to let swimming technique slide when battling race nerves, conditions and the chaos of the pack. Try to block that out and focus on your form, breathing and tempo.
Keep your head down. Sure, you need to pop up for sighting, but don’t be afraid to put your face in the water and swim. It is the only way to have good swim posture and generate speed.
Lift your arms out of the water on the stroke. Focus on clearing the water as you reach forward and keep your elbows high. This means a stroke that won’t be the same graceful one you sport in the pool but it will get you through chop and churn and that is what counts.
Kick, but only a little. It’s not that you need to kick hard or fast, but kicking helps create the body roll that is part and parcel of good swim rhythm. Sometimes in rougher race conditions there is a temptation to kick harder with a bigger range of motion - resist the urge! This will burn a lot of energy for little gain.
Take time at every transition
Getting out of the open water is a totally different experience from exiting a pool. Watch for uneven ground for starters! The temperature change can also be a shock and swimmers often feel dizzy and a little off balance from choppy water and the more exaggerated motions of open water swimming. Take it slow and let yourself ease back onto dry land. Taking a few seconds now is better than risking a fall and sustaining a race-altering injury.
And finally the start line…. all you need to remember now, whatever the race conditions, is stay strong and swim YOUR swim.