Working out how to swim better is key to triathlon success, so put your pool practice to better use this year with a smarter approach to open-water racing – and the odd gamble.

Triathlon Training - Open Water Swimming

Love it or loathe it, the open water is what triathlon is all about

The sun’s shining, the lakes are open and it’s time to get back outside. You know how you want your summer of swimming to go. You’ve trained hard all winter in the pool and now you’re ready to go and reap the rewards in your first open-water race of the season.

But we’re willing to bet it won’t be quite like that. You’ll get your wetsuit out of mothballs, squeeze into it, hyperventilate, panic at the first touch of the water, swim in circles and arrive in T1 flustered and disappointed. It’s not a great start to anyone’s race.

So stop going through the same drill and start taking charge of your open-water season now. That training you’ve done in the pool isn’t going to waste this year. Start your swim-training overhaul now with our seven-step plan – all things you probably mean to do, but never manage – and make this the year you conquer the open water.

However hard you trained in the pool this winter, there are steps you can take in late spring to start gearing up to go outside. If you’ve simply been churning out the laps, the obvious place to start is with specific form-fixing drills that will benefit both your indoor and outdoor swimming.

“At races, I see age-group athletes making a LOT of mistakes,” says Ironman swim world record holder Jan Sibbersen, founder of Sailfish wetsuits. “A lot of people don’t swim in a straight line. And that’s the most detrimental mistake because they swim 10 per cent further. It’s something that isn’t easy because it has to do with all the conditions like wind and waves. It’s not just about looking up to sight more often; that would be wrong because people would swim the whole way with their heads up and get fatigued.”

The ability to swim in a straight line is something you can learn in the pool with that same dedication that took you through the winter. Start by working out how serious your problem is: get a friend to video you in the pool (make sure there’s no-one else in there, or that you’ve explained to other swimmers what you’re doing). Look for classic problems that lead to a wandering swim, such as your arms crossing over your centre line, ‘snaking’ torso, or a much stronger stroke on one side (usually accompanied by struggling to breathe, or not breathing at all to your weaker side). You can start to fix the problem by practising bilateral breathing, which helps to balance your stroke, and kicking on your side.

Of course, swimming in open water and in a race situation IS very different to going up and down a quiet pool lane. Even the strongest swimmers, like Sibbersen, can find themselves in hot water. “I had one race in Berlin, the German Championships at Olympic distance, where there was a restart and I got dragged underwater and there were just arms and feet above me,” he says.

That’s where your basic open-water swim skills come in. If you’ve had any open-water coaching at all you’ve probably been taught a few skills to practise, such as sighting and drafting, and even a strong, straight-line swimmer like Sibbersen recognises the value of these skills.

“When I raced I usually knew that I was swimming in a straight line but I’ve made terrible mistakes. In Hawaii one year I was leading the race after 50 metres and everyone followed me but I was swimming in the wrong direction. They all just thought, ‘he must know where he’s going…’

“I think the key to making open-water swimming work for me was getting acquainted with those situations and just training on a regular basis in the open water. Age-groupers can improve it. When I look at the races and see how people are swimming I think that most of them tend not to have the opportunity to train in open water, but you should practise as often as you can.”

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe

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