Focus on Form: Early-Season Swim Training

Credit: A. Haselfeld/ Active.com

Ah, a new year. Somehow, this time of year brings new resolutions, new goals and new enthusiasm. If you begin logging long hours now, doing the same workouts that you'll be doing in May, I'm guessing your enthusiasm will be worn thin by the time the summer racing season arrives.

One good way to keep your enthusiasm fresh--and perhaps improve your race season--is to focus on form this time of the year. If, by doing form drills, you can become more comfortable in the water, more efficient on the bike and can run with just a little more speed, wouldn't that be time well spent?

Now, of course I can't guarantee PRs if you follow my suggestions, but I think you'll find that variety can spice up your training. What I'll offer are some suggestions for formwork and drills to help your racing next season.

Preparing for Open Water in the Pool

The following drills are for people who have trouble in open water swims. I've had some frustrated athletes write, "I swim great in the swimming pool, but when it's time to swim in open water, I lose confidence, my stroke falls apart, and I can't breathe. Help!"

If this happens to you, try to figure out what it is that bothers you about swimming in a lake or the ocean. Is it not being able to touch the bottom? Do you think you'll get tired and not make it to a boat? Do you hate not being able to see underwater? Does it drive you nuts when people swim over you?

Once you figure out what bothers you about open water swims, you can work on strategies to overcome the situation. I think that if people have a plan for what to do when what it happens, they'll be more confident on race day.

What if you're not sure what it is? Well, read the suggestions that follow and see if any of the strategies might help you. These suggestions are not meant to eliminate the fears of someone with a genuine phobia of the water, but rather to help people who need just a few extra tools to succeed.

Open Water Swim Drills and Strategies

Better Breathing

In the pool, practice breath-pattern sets. For example, swim 100s: the first 25, take only 1 to 2 breaths, the second 25, take 2 to 3 breaths; the third and fourth 25, take 3 to 4 breaths.

Work your way up to doing 8 to 10 of the 100s. The goal of each 100 is to relax and be efficient; it's also a good time to practice streamlining your body. If you relax, you won't need to breathe every stroke. Take plenty of rest between 100s, speed is not the issue.

Next season: You can then go into open water with confidence that if you miss a breath due to flogging arms and legs, you will be fine. You'll just catch your breath on the next stroke.

Underwater Swimming

In the pool, practice swimming underwater. Work your way up to as much of the length of the pool as possible. Again, you need to relax and swim efficiently to get a long distance. Why do this? So you can be comfortable swimming underwater.

Next season: If you are pushed underwater for a couple of seconds, it's no big deal because you can swim nearly the length of the pool on one breath.

Coping With Aggressive Competitors

Have options already planned for what you will do if you're in the middle of the pack and people get rough. For example, if someone begins to swim up your back, you need to kick like a mad-person. It will discourage him or her from running over you.

If someone is crowding you, he or she is usually trying to get closer to the buoys, to take the shortest path possible. Since swimming close to the buoys puts you with an aggressive crowd, swim to the outside of the pack, where there is more room. When you've got enough confidence to hold your line, you can throw an elbow or two towards an aggressive person who is trying to push you out of your spot.

If someone whacks your goggles off, or you take an elbow to the head, can you roll on your back and float until you've had time to gather yourself? (With a wetsuit on, its nearly impossible to sink. Try it sometime: Just lie in the water in your wetsuit and float around.) How about some breaststroke? Or treading water? Practice all three in the pool. You can increase your endurance in all three survival techniques so that you feel as if you could back float, tread or breaststroke all day if necessary.

Next season: Remember these drills so that you can use one of your survival techniques to recover from any incident. At minimum, you could float on your back until one of the boats came to get you.

What Lurks Beneath the Waves?

Not able to see anything in murky water? Do you visualize the Creature from the Black Lagoon coming to get you?

The only creatures you should visualize brushing fins with are friendly ones like Flipper. Kill that "Black Lagoon Monster" visual. Get it out of your head and begin to see yourself swimming as strongly and confidently in open water as you do in the pool. If we visualize what we want, instead of what we don't want, we'll get better results.

In the pool, count the number of strokes it takes you to get to the other end. Lets say it's 25. Close your eyes and practice swimming, without sight, to the other end. Can you swim straight, or do you weave? This drill allows you to practice on balancing your stroke, as well as swimming without perfect vision. (Make sure you do this one at a time in your lane, and open your eyes three or four strokes before you think you'll be at the wall. Remember, you counter the strokes with your eyes open.)

The next drill to add is keeping your eyes closed while your face is under water, then open your eyes only to breathe or to practice sighting something at the other end of the pool.

Next season: Race with confidence, knowing that you can swim without being able to see black lines painted on the lake bottom. If it bothers you that you can't see anything, use a strategy designed by one of the athletes I coach. Cathy Sloan tied bright orange ribbons to her wrists for her first open water swim so that she could see something. She said it helped alleviate her tension.


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

Related Articles:

    ? Focus on Form: Offseason Cycling and Running Drills

    ? Survive the Surf: Entrances and Exits in Open Water Swims

    ? Start to Finish: Owning the Open Water

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