No matter how much pool swimming you've done, it's different in open water, where you're surrounded by churning arms and legs.
Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
As you prepare for a season-opening triathlon, the best use of your practice time will be to actively rehearse what you'd like to do well in the race. But different athletes will race in different ways. Let's examine three levels of ambition.
This Is My First Triathlon
No matter how much pool swimming you may have done, it's different in open water, after the gun goes off and you find yourself surrounded by churning arms and legs. Many first-timers feel suddenly constricted by their wetsuit and spend the bulk of the race hyperventilating on the verge of panic.
So here's your guide for your first triathlon swim:
- Once the gun sounds, all your instincts are warning you not to fall back. Unless you have a lot of experience in swimming races and particularly experience racing in open water, chasing quickly degenerates into churning.
- Once you begin churning, the most likely result is rapid exhaustion, anxiety and loss of any feeling of being in control, and no material gain in speed.
- If you just stop chasing and find your own best pace, the whole experience gets a lot better and probably will not be tiring at all.
In coming weeks, try to get into open water two or three times and practice swimming in your wetsuit. As you do, focus on the following:
- A wetsuit takes away the feeling that you have to keep your arms turning over just to keep from sinking. Take advantage of that by relaxing and enjoy the wonderful security of feeling completely supported by the water.
- Once you feel supported, you can use your arms to lengthen your bodyline on each stroke. Slip your hand into the water, quietly and gently (do whatever it takes to eliminate noise and splash) then extend your hand/forearm fully before the pull. Even more important, take your time reaching.
- Stay well within yourself. Go slower than you think necessary to establish a sense of calm and control. Then focus on one or two specific points of technique. Make sure your head is in line with your body...or that you feel as if you're slipping through a small hole in the water...or that you feel arms, legs and body moving in sync.
- Once you "find your groove," just drop in behind someone moving at what feels like a pace you could sustain indefinitely and glide along. You'll finish the entire race in far better position if you just keep your heart rate down, than if you try to catch or stay with faster swimmers.
You'll probably find yourself passing dozens of competitors on the bike or run if you swim more economically than they do. You'll probably even pass some of them during the latter stages of the swim simply because you're moving at a relaxed, sustainable pace, while others who started too fast will fall behind.
I Have Race Experience and I'm Ready to Finish Higher in My Age Group
A triathlon isn't three events, but one event with three forms of locomotion. Most participants in Olympic-distance events finish a bit faster than those for a 26.2-mile marathon. No one would ever dream of speeding through the first four miles of a marathon. It's the same with swimming the 1,500-meters that opens your triathlon. So train yourself to maintain control during your swim.
Virtually every triathlon swim leg exhibits a degree of chaos, back in the pack. Maintaining a sense of calm, almost Zen-like detachment while swimming in the midst of thousands of churning athletes is the key to swimming a good time, at a low heart rate.
My goal in open water is to align my body as straight and sleek as a laser beam, and slip a long, clean, tight bodyline through the chop and swells. I make myself aware of every possible force that could knock me from it, whether internal—lifting my head for instance—or external—the buffeting of waves and swells.