Glen Gore lets us in on the pro secrets that could help you unlock your elusive open-water swim potential.
Swimming fast seems so easy when you watch pro triathletes doing it on TV. Their strokes are smooth, long and seemingly effortless, yet they still cruise their way to breathtaking swim splits. For the most part, they swim fast because they train 5km per day and have been doing so since they were teenagers. I may not be able to help you go back in time, but fortunately the pros have a few other go-faster tricks up their sleeves that I can teach you. They may not turn you into an Olympic gold medallist overnight, but they could easily be the difference between having a great swim and a poor swim the next time you line up at the start of a triathlon.
Pro triathletes know that you can save up to a minute in your overall swim finish time by starting in the best place. I remember my World Cup race in Sydney back in 1997, and the World Triathlon Championships that followed about a month later in Perth. For Sydney, I had the idea of starting on the far left of the pontoon while the rest of the pro field huddled on the right. I figured that to have some open water to myself on the left would be a lot faster that the washing machine boxing-match on the right. Bang, the gun goes and we are off. By halfway, I was trailing and came out third last as I plunged back into the water for lap two. Fortunately with a lot of effort I managed to get back into the third pack during the swim. Had I missed that pack, my race would have been history, simply because I botched the swim start by standing in the wrong position. Fast forward to four weeks later and I am lining up with Simon Lessing, Greg Welch and Chris McCormack at the World Champs in Perth. This time I opted for the huddle on the right. I managed to get myself in front by the first turn and eventually came out of the water in third spot just behind Lessing and ahead of some of the best in the world. How did I do it? I stood in the right position. I did not swim much faster than in Sydney, but managed to get to the front of the pack. It means you get to swim with faster swimmers and are ‘pushed’ from behind into a faster swim time. You also gain more self confidence from swimming nearer the front and that often delivers faster swim times.
It is legal to draft in the swim section of any triathlon, and it can certainly help you swim faster and save you energy during the race. Find an athlete or pack of swimmers that are swimming slightly faster than you, and hook in and try to swim off their pace. Top pros know that the best drafting position is when you swim either to the left or right of the swimmer in front of you, with your head positioned around their knee/hip area. Swimming so close to someone without hampering their stroke or yours takes practice, though. The second-best spot would be to swim on someone’s feet, but the lack of vision as their kicking motion produces air bubbles can make the swim uncomfortable. You will be amazed at how much easier and faster it is to swim when the swimmer in front of you tows you around the course. You often hear the war stories after the race of how a pro athlete “just missed” the swim pack in front of them, and how they would have been much faster if they’d managed to get on their feet.
3. Start Fast
The problem with starting fast is that you need train your body to be able do it. Starting too fast can result in you blowing up halfway and limping to your slowest swim time ever. Simulate a race start in training and open-water swim practices; Fartlek swim training is the best method. It requires you to swim fast, then slow, then fast again during a continuous swim, which will condition your body to adapt to the rigours of starting fast during the race and then swimming comfortably the rest of the way.
You might notice that the best pros often go through a rigorous swim warm-up before the start of a race. They need to be geared and ready to go when that gun goes off, because their heart-rate will go from 70bpm to 160bpm in less than 50m. Without a good warm-up they’ll lack the firepower needed to swim hard from the start and by the time they find their rhythm, the race leaders will be long gone. You cannot expect to swim fast if you dive into the water ‘cold’. What you need to do is get in the water prior to the race start and swim for a few minutes. A couple of 20m sprints with some easy swimming in between should be fine, before you get out and wait for the gun. You can save at least 30 seconds by warming up, although at some events it may not be possible to warm up due to logistics or the water being cold. Instead take along a set of rubber cords and do some dry land swimming with the cords where you simulate the freestyle stroke and loosen up your arms and shoulders.
I am constantly amazed at how bad triathletes’ navigational skills are in the water. If you lack the skill to swim straight to the marker buoys and instead opt for a twisty swim approach, you could end up swimming as much as 200m further over a 1500m swim. That extra 200m can see several minutes added on to your finish time over the Olympic distance. The pros make sure they know the course and don’t rely on the athletes in front to guide them. Before the start, look for land markers on the route that you can use to navigate. A good pair of goggles is also essential to ensure that your vision is not restricted and that you can see the marker buoys easily. If your goggles do mist up or take in water during the swim, stop and take a few seconds to fix them, look up and make sure you are on the correct line before continuing to swim on.
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