Triathlon coach Andy Bullock explains five ways to swim better in open water
Open-water swimming is a completely different kettle of fish to swimming in a pool. While the indoor environment is generally calm – aided by flat water, lane ropes, swimmers setting off in a civilised manner with a reasonable distance between them, and walls to hang onto when you need a rest – open water dramatically changes the script.
Waves, deeper water, sunlight, beach and deep-water starts, swimmers in (very) close proximity, wetsuits, currents… the list of differences is long and each one adds a complication to your race. So just how do you prepare for these challenges and make sure that your open-water debut gets off to the best possible start?
While it is possible to do some open-water simulation in a pool, there’s no real replacement for practising your swimming in open water. The following tips will give you focus for pool- or open-water-based training, helping you make the most of your pre-race open-water opportunities and avoid common errors.
Ironing out mistakes like starting in the wrong place in the pack, not wearing a swimming hat or wearing your wetsuit the wrong way round (yes, it has been seen) is invaluable and will make sure you stand or float at the start line feeling ready, prepared and able to turn that pre-race adrenaline into a force for good.
Without a wall at the end of each length or a lane rope to your side, you need to find a way to navigate to the next turn point, which can sometimes be more than a kilometre away. Learning how to do this and practising lifting your head every six strokes will let you see exactly where you want to go and head straight in that direction.
For pool practice, start by swimming a length with your eyes closed. In open water, swim towards a target without sighting. This will show you how straight a line you can swim without constant visual feedback. Then practise lifting your head up out of the water to allow you to see where you’re going before turning your head to breathe. To make your sighting more effective, press down slightly at the front of the stroke and kick harder to help keep your body horizontal and therefore streamlined.
2. Group swimming
Open-water swimming means groups of swimmers, and for the larger long-distance events this can mean very big groups. Having other swimmers in close proximity often means a bit of bumping and bashing. You’ll need to adjust to this in order to get the best out of your swim.
You’ll generally have two options: stay completely out of the way of other people or learn to deal with it and turn it into a performance advantage. Drafting can save a lot of energy and improve your time so it’s good to practise this, either in a swimming pool or in open water.
Starting with a friend or two, practise swimming in a close group either side-by-side or one behind the other. As your confidence grows, first increase the number of swimmers in the group and then change your position so that you’re comfortable being at the front, the back and in the middle. And remember: the more you can draft, the more energy you can save.
The start of a race is often when the swim is most crowded, so knowing what to do and how to do it will build your confidence ahead of the event. For an open-water swim, you’ll either be expected to run into the water from the shore or start in deep water without anything to push off from.
If you’re starting on land, you need to practise running in. Lift your knees and lower legs high over the water as you run through shallow water and then, when it’s deep enough, simply dive gracefully in and swim away, just like in Baywatch!
Deep-water starts can be practised either in open water or at your local pool. Get your body horizontal (wetsuits make this easier) and kick your legs gently but make sure you scull with your palms facing forwards to prevent a false start. When the hooter goes, kick hard and start swimming to give yourself a boost off the line.
Most open-water races in the UK will require you to use a wetsuit, and after a very cold winter temperatures may take longer than usual to warm up, making wetsuit swims even more likely. Having a layer of neoprene over your body can restrict your movement, particularly around the shoulders, so you’ll need to build up a little more strength to maintain the extra effort needed.
While a pullbuoy will help you practise swimming with an elevated body position, the best way to practise using a wetsuit is to get into your suit and swim. You don’t have to use a lake or the sea – open-air lidos are often slightly cooler and you can request to use your suit for a session which will then combine the benefits of using a wetsuit with the feedback and discipline (set distances and times) of pool swimming.
5. Cold temperatures
Open water is colder than a swimming pool and this has a number of effects on the body that you need to get used to. A wetsuit will help keep you warm but you still need to get water into your suit to be able to warm it up. On top of this, cold water on your face can cause rapid breathing and a headache (ice cream head). Becoming familiar with these entirely natural responses will help you deal with them come race day.
Where possible, practise in cold water. Learn to expect, experience and then control your breathing when you get into the water and find out at what temperature you need to wear more than one cap or a neoprene swimming hat to keep out the cold. You can never get rid of this cold-water response entirely but practising for it will certainly improve how you deal with it.