Practising group swims in open water will build confidence and improve your race technique. Here’s why, and how…
Open-water swimming is probably triathlon’s most technical discipline. With most of your senses being diminished in open water, it can seem an uncomfortable place to be at first. However, more and more open-water swimming venues are opening up for training and group practice is now more accessible than ever, helping to transform open-water swimming into triathlon’s most enjoyable discipline.
Training as a group has many benefits, including sharing the apprehension of a first visit to open water. Safety is of utmost importance, so check that your training venue has adequate safety measures in place, such as a lifeguard, buoyancy aids and a safety boat.
On the following pages you’ll find useful beginner, intermediate and advanced tips for group training, which could help save you valuable seconds on race day…
1 SIGHTING AND PACING
If you’re new to open-water swimming it’s important to familiarise yourself with your surroundings. Training in a group can help speed up this process. The majority of people are apprehensive when entering open water. Swimming with others can lessen this apprehension as you conquer your fears. Triathletes often complain of hyperventilation or panic attacks after about 200m of swimming in open water. This can be due to several factors: water temperature, nerves, the unfamiliarity of wearing a wetsuit and a lack of pacing. It’s important to enter the water slowly and to put your face in the water before you start swimming, to adjust your body to the temperature of the water, especially in early season.
Control Your Breathing
Understanding that everybody is apprehensive can help reduce nerves, as can controlling your breathing. As you start to swim you can count ‘one’ as you breathe out into the water and ‘two’ as you breathe in with your head turned to the side. Ask other members of your group to help you put on your wetsuit, making sure it fits correctly – it should feel like a second skin. It may feel restrictive at first, but the more often you wear it the more comfortable you’ll feel. Once in the water, don’t start swimming too quickly, both in racing and training. Pacing is the key to a good swim leg. Practising can ensure you don’t get drawn into swimming too fast once the gun goes.
Pace Your Stroke
Wearing a watch on your wrist and timing your swim laps while experimenting with pace (i.e. starting slow and finishing fast) in a group is the quickest way to develop pace judgement in the swim leg. Find out whether starting fast or slow gives you your fastest lap. The shortest distance between two buoys is a straight line. Sighting regularly will ensure a straight line swim and maintaining sighting during group swimming. Not being drawn into following others blindly creates excellent open-water skills.
2 TURNING AROUND BUOYS
1 The shortest line around the buoy is the inside line. If possible always be as close to the buoy as you can to ensure you swim the shortest line. However, in a large field of several hundred, this is not always possible so try to keep moving and sight regularly to ensure a smooth path around the turn buoy.
2 It’s worth noting that there is often a small gap around the inside line of a buoy even in a large field, as for some reason large groups of swimmers tend to swim wide around the course. This technique of swimming the inside line can only be practised in a group.
3 The group can practise turning around a buoy together and rotate the swimmer on the inside around the buoy each time they practise a turn. The fastest turn technique in a group is often to just swim around the buoy, sighting regularly. The advanced roll turn technique is often best used when not in a crowd.
Drafting in open-water swimming can save energy. You need to swim close to the person in front, almost tapping their feet on every stroke. This lets you lengthen and slow down your stroke, lowering your heart rate and increasing efficiency. It’s important you sight through the swimmer in front to ensure you’re swimming the correct line – drafting is pointless if you’re swimming further than you need. As a group, this can be practised swimming a course in a line, rotating the lead swimmer each lap. A more advanced technique is to swim on someone’s wake (the wave created by swimming) beside them, easily practised by swimming side by side.
4 MASS START
The mass start is the most daunting aspect of open-water swimming. It’s important to experience this before your first race. Many open-water swim venues practise mass starts, but if you swim as a group you can practise these yourself by lining up together and having someone start the ‘race’. Use all the techniques, from pacing to counting breathing, to drafting and sighting, to ease you through the early part of the race. It’s vital to not start too fast – start from a position according to your ability. Within your training group advanced swimmers should start at the front, intermediates in the middle, and beginners at the back and sides.