Prior to the race, practice these focal points while swimming in open water. On race day, choose the one that feels best to you and use it for the entire swim.
- Keep your head in line with your spine. Imagine you're being towed by a line at the top of your head, with an action that lengthens your neck. Unless checking your bearings, look directly down as you swim.
- Swim slowly (in practice, not the race) to acquire a feeling of effortless ease and complete ability to control your movement quality. Then move a bit faster, trying to maintain the same sense of ease and control.
- Keep a long, needle-like shape as you roll to breathe. In open water, you need to roll farther than in the pool to find air. Think of cutting through the water like an arrow through the air.
By practicing "functional focal points," like those above, you not only improve the economy of your stroke in a real way, you also block out distractions and give yourself the ability to observe all the distractions around you on race day with calm detachment. When you do that, you'll swim much better—and perhaps even learn to enjoy the experience of swimming in challenging conditions.
I'm Aiming for the Podium
If you're aiming for an age-group title, you should begin adding some speed and tactical practice to your open-water rehearsals. In addition to the exercises noted above, develop your ability to stay smooth at racing speed with pacing exercises.
I generally swim in a range of three "gears" in open water practice: Silent is virtually effortless, cruise is a bit faster with some feeling of pace, and brisk represents the effort and pace I'd usually feel in the course of a mile race.
Here are some forms of open-water practice that I use frequently. The first four are good for solo practice. Use the last two when swimming with a group:
Swim silent and blind. Swim as quietly as possible and see how far you can swim—on course—without lifting your head to peek. Start with at least 20 strokes and try to improve to 50 or more.
Repeat above, but this time practice "snapshot" looks and breathing.
Speedplay 1. Alternate rounds of 40 strokes silent with 20 strokes cruise. Try to be just as quiet and splash-free as you accelerate to "cruise pace."
Speedplay 2. Alternate 20 strokes silent/20 strokes cruise/20 strokes brisk. Try to stay just as smooth and fluent at brisk as at silent. Also practice adjusting your tempo in the core, just keeping your arms connected to your torso as you cycle through this repeatedly.
Drafting practice. When swimming with a group, start at the rear and practice "feeling wakes" and not looking very often. Also practice how to advance within the pack by leapfrogging from the "free ride" of one wake to the free ride of another wake further ahead in the pack, like a trout working upstream from rock to rock.
Pickups. Start at the rear of the pack, give the leaders a bit of a head start, then build your tempo and pace steadily from silent through cruise, brisk, as you work your way through the pack. Feel smooth at every speed.