Open water swimming, either in lakes or the ocean, is becoming an increasingly popular sport, either individually or as part of the booming sport of triathlon. Even if you grew up training for competitive swimming in the pool, there are aspects of open water events that necessitate adjustments in your training routine and event or race strategy. Here are a few tips that might help both novice and experienced open water swimmers who are training for an open water race.
Tip #1: Don’t do it alone
As many swimmers know, training alone is tedious and often unproductive. However, adults might not always have the option of swimming with an age group swimming team for training purposes. If you are lucky and you live in an area near a Masters swimming club or team, try to join them for your training. Masters teams are open to anyone 19 years or older, and offer coached workouts anywhere from twice a week to twice a day. If you are training for an open water swim, your best training will come from finding a group that focuses on distance freestyle workouts at least twice a week. If you are training for a triathlon with an open water swim component, or do not live near a Masters swim team, you may also find training buddies with your local triathlon group.
While these workouts may not be coached, there will often be experienced triathletes who can give you pointers and provide someone to pace yourself against during workouts. This approach is especially useful for novice swimmers, who may be nervous about their first open water swim, and can obtain valuable advice from more experienced swimmers.
If there are no swimming or triathlon clubs in your area, check with the local gym, since many gyms now offer swimming workouts as classes or host triathlon training groups at their pools. Finally, if you cannot find an organised group to swim with, ask around for a friend or gym buddy who is also interested in training together for the same race. Not only will you gain a workout partner but you will have a friend on race day.
Tip #2: Practice open water techniques
Open water swimming has a few variables that are not encountered in pool races. The primary differences are the lack of turns (since there are no walls in the ocean), the waves, and the need to swim toward designated markers that may be difficult to spot.
To prepare for the lack of turns, try to train at least once a week in a long course (50 meter or Olympic-sized) pool, or in a lake or ocean to get accustomed to swimming for long periods without a break. If you need a break while swimming long distances, switch to breaststroke for a few easy strokes, then return to freestyle after catching your breath.
To prepare for the waves, become accustomed to breathing low to the water. While this may be counter-intuitive, your body creates a small air pocket behind your armpit where you can catch some air without sucking in too much water.
Finally, you will need to become accustomed to lifting your head every so often to sight the buoy that tells you where to swim. Open water racecourses are usually delineated with bright orange floating balls or buoys that show swimmers where to go. Many races are lost by fast swimmers who do not look for the buoys often enough and swim great distances off course. To find the buoys, lift your head while swimming freestyle to look straight ahead, much like a water polo player will swim when pushing the ball. If you are having trouble seeing the buoys, switch to a breaststroke where you are not putting your head under water until you find the buoys.
Tip #3: Practice the pacing
The most common mistake in long distance swimming is taking the race out too fast. This is especially problematic with novice swimmers, who are so pumped up for the race day that they burn up most of their energy reserves in the first portion of the race.
When training for the race, practice negative splitting the race, in which you start at a slower speed in the first portion of the race and gradually pick up speed as the race progresses. If you practice the race in the pool, use a clock to practice going faster as the swim progresses.
As any experienced distance swimmer will tell you, you will get such a boost from adrenaline at the start of the actual race that smart swimmers will aim for a smooth, relaxed stroke at the onset to save their energy reserves for later in the race. With a bit of practice, negative splitting will become second nature, and you will enjoy the open water swims much more as you finish strong and fast.
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