We recently asked our Facebook community for their most perplexing questions about the first leg of a triathlon—the swim. We compiled some of the most interesting questions and ran them by Julia Galan, founder and director of Swimspire, a certified USA Swimming coach, a lifelong competitive swimmer and a member of USA Swimming and United States Masters Swimming. So read on and, whether you're a triathlete or new to the swim game, let's get swimming!
How do you reduce anxiety while swimming in open water? --Karla Schmid
The simple answer to this is practice, practice, practice! This can be done in both the open water and in your friendly neighborhood swimming pool.
Practice in the open water as often as you can to familiarize yourself with swimming in that setting. Find open water swim clinics to attend so that you can learn essential open-water specific skills such as sighting, turns and drafting. Join a training group or organize your own open water swims with friends. But, however you decide to train, always put safety first and never swim alone.
Whether you have access to open water or not, you also need to spend time in the pool to effectively help reduce open water anxiety. Think of the pool as "home base" for developing an efficient stroke technique and gaining strength and endurance. Consistent training in the pool, using a mixture of drills and interval-based swim sets, will allow you to become as comfortable and efficient as possible in the open water, helping to reduce any strength or skill-based anxiety.
Is it better to focus on maintaining a faster stroke rate or to maximize the length of your stroke when you are swimming? -- Mike Gennoe (United Kingdom)
This has been the subject of much debate within the swimming community. It's important to remember that in swimming, there are a variety of different techniques that work for different people. Regardless of what technique you use, you should aim to maximize what's called your "distance per stroke," often referred to as DPS in swim workouts. This is effectively reducing the number of strokes you need to take per pool length.
At the same time, however, you should not sacrifice your speed and momentum in the water in a quest to achieve the perfect distance per stroke. If you find yourself slowing down or stopping at any point in your stroke cycle, you are most likely over-gliding. Your stroke rate should be fast enough to keep you in perpetual motion, providing you with a stroke that is both long and fast. Experimenting with drills and counting strokes in the controlled environment of a swimming pool will allow you to discover the stroke length and rate that yields the best results.
During workouts, should you focus mainly on drills or rather on long-distance swims several times a week? -- Lionel Soussan (Montreal, Quebec)
Swimming is both a highly technical and fitness-based sport. In order to swim as efficiently as possible and avoid injuries, you need to develop and maintain proper technique in the water. But achieving maximum results isn't possible through drills alone. Your workouts should provide you with a good mix of intense swim sets and drill work. Be smart about the drills you do, however. There are hundreds of drills out there, designed to address many different elements of the stroke technique. Not all of these drills will be right for you. Be sure to get your stroke analyzed and work with a coach to determine what you need to work on. This will allow you to rest assured that every set in your workout is worthwhile.
How can I best prepare for an open-water swim if I don't have access to open water? -- Jim R. Hagan
While incorporating open-water sessions into your routine is an ideal way to prepare for the swim portion of a triathlon, there are many swimmers who may not be able to do this for a variety of reasons. If this is you, never fear. With access to a pool, you can still have a successful swim on race day. Include longer swimming sets in your workouts, and practice swimming the distance you will have to complete during your race. Be sure to take in account the extra rest and momentum you get off each wall, however. You can also practice open-water turns if you have the lane to yourself and try sighting drills, such as the Tarzan drill (swimming with your head up), to familiarize yourself with some of the open water conditions you'll face during the race. With some creativity, there are many ways to train for the open water in the pool.
Is bilateral breathing important? I only feel comfortable breathing to one side. -- Bill Converse
Bilateral breathing, or breathing on both sides of the body, is an important skill to have as a swimmer for several reasons. First and foremost, bilateral breathing promotes a symmetrical and balanced stroke.
Maintaining a symmetrical stroke is essential at all times, but it's particularly important to help you swim straighter during open water races (which saves both time and energy). The ability to breathe bilaterally also allows gives you more control over your race: you'll be able to see other swimmers around you, you'll have a better idea of where you are in relation to buoys or to the shore and avoid the glare of the sun when needed. Practicing bilateral breathing during your workouts will allow you to use this skill strategically during your race, regardless of whether you choose to become an exclusive bilateral breather or not.
How can I become a more efficient swimmer and expend less energy in the water? -- Simon Norris
As I mentioned in an earlier answer, swimming is a very technical sport. Focusing exclusively on building up strength and endurance will not win you a long distance race. Because water is 800 times denser than air, you face tremendous resistance while swimming that can't be overcome by strength alone. Instead, you need to learn to slip past the water's resistance by fine-tuning such aspects as body balance, symmetry, and streamlining. This will allow you to achieve maximum results for the energy that you expend in the water. Building up your endurance is also a key component to swimming more efficiently, but this will not be achieved through continuous long swims alone. Incorporating shorter, interval-based sets will allow you to increase your strength without losing your technique.
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