Last summer, one of my athletes felt great going into the water at the start of her goal event, a half-Ironman at Buffalo Springs Lake in Lubbock, Texas, only to get stuck behind a pack of slow swimmers.
A gap formed between her group and the leaders, but by the time she fought her way into open water she didn't have the power to get across to them. And while she ended the day with a new PR, her experience in the water revealed an opportunity for even more improvement. She needed some surge power and a more aggressive outlook on swimming in the pack.
Pack swimming is a relatively infrequent experience for most athletes, and it's difficult to replicate in a pool. Sure, you can swim laps right on someone's feet or hip, but there's little that compares to being smack in the middle of a few hundred swimmers out in open water.
So, without much opportunity to practice this skill, here are some tips for staying out of trouble.
Don't Get Pushed Around at the Start
Where you stage for the swim has a lot to do with how crowded you'll be in the water. Everyone wants to start in the middle of the shoreline to have the shortest distance to first buoy, but remember that all those athletes on the sides are going to be converging in toward the middle as soon as the gun goes off.
If you're not fast enough to get out ahead of them, you'll end up in the most congested swimming environment you can imagine. For my medium-speed swimmers (the ones who are in the first half of the pack coming out of the water), I actually recommend lining up more toward the ends of the shoreline.
You'll be able to catch a draft from the pack, but you'll have fewer swimmers to one side of you, meaning you'll have room to move around slow people. Yes, you'll have a little bit farther to swim, but swimming in better conditions often leads to faster swim times anyway.
Protect Your Face
Getting kicked in the face is one of the biggest risks and fears for triathletes. To reduce this risk try swimming catch-up style when you're in the pack. Catch-up is normally a stroke drill where you leave one hand extended in front of you while the other pulls through a complete stroke.
When that hand gets back in front of you, you begin your pull with the other arm. In a tight pack environment, swimming in such a manner means that one hand is always in front of your head to intercept a swimmer's wayward foot. Once you're in clearer water you can go back to a conventional stroke.
Think Before You Surge
Accelerating in the water to pass another athlete takes a lot of energy, so make sure you're doing it for the right reason. In the middle of the pack, passing one person isn't going to take you out of the draft, but if you're in a long line of swimmers you run the risk of pulling out to the side, slowing down because of the drag and then losing your spot as you fight to get back in line.