Mind over matter: Key tactics for open-water swimming

It's almost time to break out of the pool-swimming routine and hit the lake for a few early-season open-water training sessions.

But before you take the plunge, take a few moments to brush up on a few of the fundamentals of open-water swimming. Doing so will not only make you quicker in the water, but will also help boost your confidence and motivation.

The start of a triathlon is always the roughest, most confusing portion of the race. The gun sounds, and suddenly you're in a whirlpool of hands, feet and whitewater. You're getting the worst beat-down of your life by that cute girl who seemed so nice on the beach, and you have no idea which way is up, much less where the first buoy is. Then, when it couldn't possibly get any worse, your goggles get knocked off.

But it doesn't have to be like this. Where you choose to position yourself in relation to the first buoy and other swimmers can dramatically affect the outcome of your swim. When you line up for your first open-water swim start this season, consider the following:

Check the course conditions: If you're swimming in a river or ocean there's a good chance there will be a current or waves to deal with. Consider this factor when choosing where to start.

For example, if the current moves right to left, and the first turn is to the left, you may want to place yourself to the right of your start group. The current will push the group to the left and away from you, instead of pushing them on top of you and causing the disorienting melee you want to avoid.

Pacing and sighting: While the start is hectic and disorienting, it only lasts a few minutes. A poor start won't destroy your race. However, poor pacing and sighting can. When the gun sounds, nervous energy mixes with adrenaline, and this can lure you into starting too fast.

You feel awesome for a minute or two before the adrenaline burns off and you realize you are well beyond your sustainable pace; you spend the rest of the swim trying to get comfortable and pay off the oxygen debt your fast start incurred.

Instead, between the start and the first buoy try to swim comfortably fast. You should feel as though you have more in the tank and want to speed up. This is exactly where you want to be. If you can remain comfortable for the first quarter of the swim, or at least to the first buoy, you'll be able to maintain that pace or even speed up. However, if you overdo it early on, your pace will inevitably taper off after a few hundred meters.

Once you've found your rhythm and a good draft, don't get lulled into a sense of complacency, particularly when it comes to sighting. Even the best swimmers can get pulled off course, and it only takes a few strokes to start swimming in the wrong direction.

The trick is to sight early and often. As soon as you round a buoy you should be looking for the next one. Ideally, you should sight at least every four or five strokes.

Hold your ground: There will always be some contact in a triathlon swim. Be prepared for that, but don't let it intimidate you. A little contact will let the other swimmers know you're there: If you try to avoid contact by shrinking away any time you're bumped, you will spend the entire swim fleeing from the rest of the pack.

While you probably put in plenty of weekly yardage in the pool, taking the time to review the key tactics for open-water swimming can make a world of difference to your race-day enjoyment and performance. Remember to plan ahead and use the swim to your advantage, rather than allowing it to become a chore.


Jimmy Archer is a six-year professional triathlete and coach with a degree in exercise physiology and 10 years of coaching experience. Jimmy coaches through Azcoaching.com and can be reached at jimmy@jimmyarcher.com.

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