In a way, I act as both teacher and student in this environment, keeping my ear close to the sand—oops, I mean ground—and taking notes on what questions pop up most often, as well as providing solutions that athletes can directly apply in our sessions.
So what are these frequently asked questions, exactly? And what answers do I provide? Read on to find out.
To Kick or Not to Kick?1 of 11
One word: kick! While the kick may only provide around 10 percent of total propulsion in freestyle for an open water swim, it still needs to be present for three big functions—tempo, balance and lift. A consistent tempo will sync with the cadence of your stroke and make your swim more efficient. With the proper range of motion in your kick (12 to 15 inches from toe to toe) your legs act as counter balance to keep your body position stable while rotating side to side. Finally, the drive of your leg downward is a force that helps to actually lift your body up higher to the waterline. A kick that is lazy or too small in range of motion will cause your legs to sink and create excess drag.
How Often Should I Be Sighting?2 of 11
Sight low profile and sight often. Depending upon conditions, you should be sighting every two to four stroke cycles. You can't rely on the people around you to lead you to the buoy in a direct line, so sight frequently to navigate effectively and efficiently.
How Often and How Much Should I Breathe?3 of 11
In open water, I recommend exclusively breathing to the same side, every two strokes. This is invaluable for a number of reasons. It allows you maintain a protected pocket of air, always breathing towards the shore and away from the movement of water. It creates a rhythmic and seamless rise and fall of the breath—one second inhaling and one second exhaling—just as you would breathe on land. With all of this said, be sure to practice the balance and mechanics of breathing to your non-dominant side every stroke cycle as well, preparing you for when the swim course switches directions or there is choppy water on your dominant breathing side.
How Do I Overcome My Fear of Open Water or Deep Water?4 of 11
Fear is learned, which subsequently means that fear can be unlearned. It's important to first approach the open water with equal parts patience and determination. Take things slowly, without putting pressure on yourself to meet certain expectations each session—it will take time. The goal is to create a positive experience and begin collecting these experiences each session so it becomes the norm and something you expect each time you get to open water.
When you arrive at the beach, your assignment begins on shore. Observe the conditions so you know what to expect when you're out there. Understanding the water's movement, where the waves are breaking and if there's chop all help to put you at ease when you get out there, because you've already mentally accepted the variables at hand.
Perhaps the most valuable device you can tap into to keep your mind healthy and focused is your breath. Saying "inhale" and "exhale" to yourself as you approach the water will keep your mind exclusively focused on the quality of your breath and block out any of the negative self-talk and noise that otherwise may be present. This sounds simple, and it is. It truly works to keep you in a positive, productive state of mind.
Why Are My Hips/Legs Sinking?5 of 11
There are three main causes of sinking hips and legs, and each are fairly easy to diagnose and address.
• Head position: If your head is either too high or too low, your spine is out of alignment and causes sinking and drag in your lower half. The water line should break at the top third of your head just above your hairline, creating a wave off your head and subsequent pocket of air to breathe into easily.
• Holding your breath: Ventilating the lungs properly and efficiently in the water can seem tricky at first. Tune into your breath as you stand at the wall before your next set, and feel the rise and fall. This is the seamless breathing pattern you want to maintain as you swim aerobically. If you fill up your lungs greater than 50 percent capacity and/or hold your breath at any point in the breathing cycle, your lungs will fill up like balloons and the excess buoyancy in your chest will cause your hips and legs to sink.
• Improper kicking mechanics: Lack of consistent tempo, bent knee/bicycle kicking or a range of motion that is either too small or too large can cause the legs to drag. Focus on a steady, relaxed kicking rhythm with a long, straight leg and pointed toes, kicking 12 to 16 inches in amplitude.
How Do I Exit the Surf?6 of 11
Most people are thrilled to get back to shore at the end of their swim, but it consistently proves to be one of the most difficult aspects of ocean swimming for triathletes to master. First, know that because it is the end of the swim, you'll likely be tired, so exiting efficiently is most important. As opposed to the swim entry, where you're going against the grain of the water's movement to shore, during the exit you can utilize the energy and movement of the waves to aid your efforts. Instead of breathing directly to the side per usual, breathe back into your shoulder so that you can get a peek at the waves behind you with each stroke. This will give you the visibility and spatial awareness necessary to gauge where the waves will be breaking and how to act accordingly.
As for when to act, act early. If you see that a wave will be breaking within 10 feet of you, be sure to dive down and in the same direction as the shore a few seconds earlier than you may naturally think. By the time the wave or white wash gets close to you, all of that energy will push you around and it will be too late to avoid the turbulence. You'll typically only be underwater for a few seconds, so utilizing a long, sighing exhale will help keep your body relaxed until you surface. Seamlessly go into your freestyle stroke again to maintain progress into shore.
Perhaps the best piece of advice is to swim all the way into shore until your hands are hitting the sand multiple strokes in a row, pop up and then run with high knees out of the water and onto the beach. The less time spent in waist and chest deep water where the waves are breaking and water is pulling you back out, the better.
How Can I Get Faster in the Open Water?7 of 11
To get faster in open water, train in open water. This sounds obvious, but most age group athletes spend little to no time training in the open water before racing. Train long in the open water, train in groups to get used to the feeling of being in tight quarters and train entry and exit. Because open water is so dynamic, its demands are significantly different than those of pool swimming.
If you're land-locked or predominantly limited to pool training, there are a few simple things you can focus on to prep you for the open water. Try a water metronome to work on creating a rhythmic, balanced stroke. In open water, tempo is everything when it comes to maintaining momentum. Practice sighting in the pool, especially during your harder sets and time trials—this is how you will race. Master your breathing. Without constant control over it, especially in a dynamic race environment in open water, your performance ceiling lowers considerably.
Should I Rotate My Body—and How Much?8 of 11
Yes! Body rotation is the nucleus of your stroke, connecting and syncing the movements of upper and lower body. Visualize the way a pendulum swings, with constant motion from one side to the other, without pause or change in the degree of rotation. This is precisely how you want to imagine driving your hips down from side to side between 45 to 50 degrees each time.
Be cautious to rotate at your shoulders and not at your hips, and make sure you're not leading the rotation at your shoulders with the hips following after. Instead, imagine the shoulder and hip are on the same plane rotating simultaneously around your spine side to side—left side, right side, left side, right side.
Should I Warm Up, and How?9 of 11
It's a good rule of thumb to warm up before any physical activity, and there's no exception with swimming. If the race allows, get in the water and swim to the first buoy and back as a warm-up. This allows you to fire off your muscles in preparation for your swim, and also allows you the firsthand perspective of what you will see from the first buoy looking onward to the remainder of the course. This can prove invaluable, as it will instill the confidence to know what physical landmarks to look for and reference when navigating the remainder of the course.
If the race doesn't allow athletes into the water before the gun goes off, don't worry. Buy a pair of swim bands or elastic workout tubing to use for your warmup. Simply tether to a fence, tree or post and use the resistance of the tubing to go through your freestyle stroke's range of motion as if you were swimming. This creates a neuromuscular connection comparable to how you will be swimming when you get in the water, readying you for the swim much more than if you were cold and sprinting into the water when the race starts.
Can I Really Draft Off Someone?10 of 11
Drafting behind a swimmer is a very real thing and allows you to benefit from the reduced pressure created by the person in front of you. While it seems obvious to try and take advantage of this as often as possible in triathlon, the sad truth is that you'll be hard-pressed to find an effective draft very often, especially one that leads you in the right direction. Hanging onto the feet of the swimmer in front of you and trusting them to pilot your course effectively is pretty foolish. You don't know their experience or skill and certainly don't want to put your race in their hands just to utilize five to 10 percent efficiency from a draft.
Still interested in drafting? Sheesh, OK...
If and when you are able to work with another swimmer or a group, consider the following. You can draft off of a swimmer's feet or near their hip at eye level. I recommend drafting off of the feet of the swimmer in front, as it's a bit more covert, and you're less likely to frustrate the swimmer you're mooching off of. With that said, be sure to maintain enough space so that you don't tickle their toes and upset them enough to try to veer their course or kick back. Ideally you want to be as close to their feet as possible to maximize the draft. To have a reference as to how close you are, gauge the amount of bubbles coming off their feet and into your face. You should feel a steady flow, and if you don't, you can inch a bit closer. This takes practice and patience but can be an effective conservation of energy before deciding to surge ahead.