You diligently hit the pool every Monday, Wednesday and Friday all winter. You even moved up in your masters group to a faster lane.
Yet in your first few XTERRAs this season you’re in nearly the same position out of the water. At this point in the summer that local body of water near your house is starting to warm up to a comfortable temperature for open water swimming. Open water may just be the thing you need to take your swim to the next level. But what should you do out there? Below are a few suggestions to get you rolling:
No Time, No Problem
You would never show up to the pool if you knew you only 10-20 minutes to swim. However, a lot can be accomplished in a 10-20 minute continuous swim. My best swimming has happened when I stopped swimming in the pool and started swimming all open water. Instead of swimming 2-3 times a week for 60 minutes, I started swimming 3-4 times a week for only 10-40 minutes at a time. I just made sure that all the time I had was spent actually swimming. I primarily did tempo swims, but worked very hard to increase my cadence. For many people that are relatively new to swimming and do not do flip turns the pool wall acts like a crutch. It is used for extra rest and totally breaks the rhythm of your swim.
Practice in All Conditions
Everytime you go to the pool the conditions are nearly the same. Sometimes it’s a little cold or too warm, but that’s it. On race day, you never know what the conditions will be like so make sure you swim open water in all conditions as well. Make sure it’s safe of course, but don’t be afraid of a little chop! Being comfortable in all conditions will pay off and might just allow you to make the front pack when others are struggling.
Swim with a Group
The more people you can get out there with you the better. First of all, it’s just safer to swim with a group. Swimming with others also pushes you to swim harder and practice race simulations. Drafting can improve your 1500 meter swim time by as much as 60-90 seconds. Practice drafting off others, have others swim behind you and hit your feet with every stroke, or try to pass someone and jump to the next group.
Wail on the Water
Lifelong swimmers are probably mumbling expletives under their breath right now. Wailing on the water doesn’t mean make a huge splash as it implies. It really refers to increasing your cadence. That summer I started to improve my swim I did something I liked to call wailing on the water. When I knew I only had 10-20 minutes, which was most of the time I started swimming nearly as hard as I could for as long as I could. I started with 50 strokes(I would only count 1 arm because it was too hard to keep track of two when swimming at my max.). As soon as I could no longer keep up the effort and cadence I would swim easy for about 20 strokes and try to do it again. I would repeat this 3-6 times depending on how much time I had and how tired I was. Each week try to add 10 strokes or more. I got so that I was doing around 400+ strokes for each interval, but I kept my rest interval the same. My cadence went up which is important in open water swimming because it helps keep your momentum especially in choppy water or when swimming against the current. Typically, the choppier the water the faster your cadence needs to be. Pool only swimmers often fail to make this adjustment in open water. This workout totally sucks, but has huge benefits, and it looks pretty funny for spectators.
Practice Race Starts
The beginning of each race can determine whether or not you swim with the lead pack or make a pack at all. The first 200 meters could determine whether or not you make the podium in your age group or not. You need to practice this often and be as race specific as you can. Is your next big race a water or beach start? You need to know and practice. If you have an open water group, do the starts together to even better simulate the start of your race. Again, I often count strokes or use buoys or landmarks. I will do 50-100 strokes nearly all out, 50-100 at race pace and then swim easy back before I start my next start. It’s a lot easier to use buoys or landmarks if you are with a group.
Make Yourself Uncomfortable
Triathlon swims can be unpredictable and a little bit crazy. The last thing you want to do is stop mid swim and lose contact with your pack, and minutes to your competition. Open water swims offer the closest simulation to this. I encourage athletes to swim through uncomfortable situations. If you get battered by a wave, take in a huge drink, your goggles fog up, or you get kicked try to swim through it instead of stopping to gather yourself. If I get slammed by a wave and take in a bunch of water I try to actually swim harder during my training swim and see if I can work my way through it. I use it as an opportunity to simulate a race day situation that you often find yourself in, but is difficult to prepare for.
Limit Time in Your Wetsuit
You want to be comfortable in your wetsuit, but you do NOT want to do all of your open water swims in your wetsuit. Wetsuits are buoyant and help hide flaws in your body position. They also pretty much alleviate the need to kick. Swimming in open water without a wetsuit will make you a much stronger swimmer and improve your body position.
If you swim at the same lake, beach, or reservoir start getting an idea of how long it takes you swim between certain landmarks and know their distances. Obviously current and chop can affect your times, but you can start to use the distances for workouts. A huge part of open water swimming is sighting. During every workout you should pick one or more landmarks to sight. When race day comes sighting will be a piece of cake!
Use Designated Swim Areas
I know plenty of people that don’t open water swim because they are uncomfortable swimming by themselves. If this is the case, go to your local swimming hole and swim back and forth between the swim buoys. Time yourself going the length of them and practice making turns around the buoys. Buoys are great for intervals. You can swim the length, down and back or do pyramids.
Now that I’ve told you to make yourself uncomfortable and swim in adverse conditions I also want to make sure that you always think about safety. Below are a few recommendations to help make sure you’re safe out there:
Swim with a group when possible.
Have someone in a kayak or on a paddle board.
Make sure someone has a cell phone in the kayak or on the beach.
If there are lifeguards let them know you are swimming.
Use a swim buoy, especially if you are swimming alone.
Wear a bright swim cap.
Make sure someone knows exactly where you are swimming and when you plan to return.
Don’t swim in areas with high boat traffic.