It’s the first race of the season. After an awesome last season where you got over your lifetime fear of open water swimming, dialed in your sighting and drafting, and had some very successful races, you’re ready to hit it with a new season of race goals. Then you’re in the water again before the gun. This year’s triathletes look a lot less friendly and like they are in much better shape. The water is definitely colder than it ever was last year. Your wetsuit has shrunk 3 sizes (or worse, you’ve expanded 3 sizes) and is really squeezing around your chest and neck. You can’t breathe. You realize you forgot to put your goggle straps under your cap or spit in them prior to putting them on so now they are fogging (or some other last minute, time-consuming noob mistake). It seems very rushed and crowded. The water feels different and you feel heavy and clumsy in it. What is going on? Not this again!
Yes, this again. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Everyone, even people that have no inherent fear of open water, has a little swim rust they have to wash off in the early season. You spent the winter in the pool by yourself doing laps. Open Water Swimming is a different animal. It’s like spending the entire winter on the bike trainer in your garage, then going out and doing a criterium with 100 other cyclists. It helps you’re fit and have great technique, but there are other distractions and a host of mental skills you haven’t been practicing. The good news is you’ve done this before and been successful. You can do it again, and much more quickly. Below is a list of things to help wash away your early season swim rust and banish the open water bugaboos.
Practice Your Open Water Techniques in the Pool
Nothing beats getting out in open water on a regular basis, but if you don’t have access to a lake during the off season, you can still do some prep work in the pool.
- Practice your alligator sighting. Sighting is much more energy consuming than regular swimming. For your long sets, every 4th length, alligator sight every other breath.
- Practice breathing to both sides. Even if you don’t bilateral breathe because you need to breathe more frequently than that allows, you should still be able to breathe comfortably to both sides. You never know when you’ll be able to sight off a close wall, or have someone on your good breathing side kicking the poo out of you, or be getting hit in the face with chop from the wind. The ability to switch to your other side to breathe, even if it’s a little less efficient, is a good open water skill.
- Swim short sections with your eyes closed. Note: only do this if you have the lane to yourself. Also, get an idea of how many strokes it takes to get across the pool before you do this (and open your eyes before you reach that count). This drill helps you figure out if you naturally track left or right in your swimming. Although, it’s worth it to have a coach figure out why you track to one side or the other, it’s also good to know if you have a natural tendency so you can correct for it in open water. Also, most people tend to get a little tentative when putting their hand somewhere they can’t see (as is common in open water). This can cause your stroke to really shorten. Practice really stretching and staying relaxed, even with your eyes closed.
- Practice drafting and passing with a buddy. If you’ve got someone (or two or three) you work out with regularly, ask them if you can all share a lane for a few minutes. Spend some time swimming in close quarters and expect contact. Practice trailing them and then trying to pass. Practice swimming right next to them and close to a lane line. Usually these drills end with everyone giggling on the far side of the pool, and it’s great to practice these skills with people you know prior being forced via close proximity to learn them with a bunch of strangers.
- Grab a lane in deep water. Instead of lowering yourself gently into your lane, jump into it cold and tread water for a few minutes. Stay low in the water and gently skull your hands conserving energy. Spend some time floating on your back relaxing, then start your regular swim set. If watching the pool line go by from 10 feet above gives you the willies, then it’s a good skill to practice in a controlled environment like a pool first.
- Visit a “long course” pool. A lot of pools will change from the standard 25 yard set-up to 50 meters for certain days of the week or certain weeks of the year. It’s worth it to go to these pools on these days. Although fewer lanes usually means the lanes are more crowded and you have to circle swim, this is ideal for triathlon training. Be sure to choose a workout that is predominantly long sets or a straight swim (and not 50 yard sprints for example) so that you can practice passing slower swimmers and drafting behind faster ones.
Get Your Pre-race Mental Routine Down
About 50% of the population has an inherent fear of dark open water. If you’re part of the 50% that do have this fear, it comes in one of two forms. You are either claustrophobic in open water (so the wetsuit makes it worse) or you’re agoraphobic (so the wetsuit makes it better). Like fear of snakes and fear of heights, it’s just one of those things. The rub is in swimming, remaining relaxed and focused is key to swimming efficiently. Developing a routine that helps get you relaxed and executing it before every race is critical. Over time, you may not need this routine, or it may be very quick to execute it, skipping steps. However, you should still have a method of tackling pre-race jitters.
- Do some activation drills prior to getting in the water. This helps get your arms and shoulders loosened up plus gets you focused on your stroke technique. See our list of activation drills here.
- Take a warm-up jog or swim. If they let you get in prior to your event, take your time to ease yourself in and swim at least a few hundred yards. If you can’t get in prior, a 10 to 15 minute jog will get your core temperature up and relax you.
- If you’re not doing a beach start, you’ll have to swim to the start line. Take that time to get your face in the water, float on your back, and do a few drills from the pool you know help your stroke.
- Have some key phrases to help you focus when the horn goes off. For most people, the first few minutes of an open water swim are the most stressful. If you’re not planning on drafting, you don’t have to go out like a banshee. Take your time and focus on good technique. Use key words that you know help your swimming, and say them over and over again in time to your strokes. “Relaxed power, relaxed power” “Long and low, long and low” “Arms wide, arms wide” or channel your inner-Nemo “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming”.
- Count. Open water can seem very vast, especially after just swimming in a pool, so break it up into smaller pieces. Count how many strokes it takes you to get across the pool. Add about 30% more to that count (since you don’t have a wall to push off of). During the race, put your head in and go until you reach that count. Using this technique breaks the swim into a lot more manageable pieces.
Get to the Pool or a Lake Prior to Your Event
Choose a smaller event prior to your “A” race to focus on your swimming. Choose a swim-only event prior to your “A” race. Participate in an Open Water Swim clinic. Drag a bunch of your buddies out to a lake or the ocean for a pre-season swim.
I know this seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. If swimming is your weakness, it’s not going to get any better by avoiding it. In fact, it’s probably going to get worse since you’ll get a bigger and bigger mental barrier towards it. Triathlon is 3 disciplines. We all have one we’re not super fond of. Although you may minimize the time you put into a particular discipline, don’t expect it to ever get better unless you embrace it and practice it. Most people require two days of swimming a week to maintain their speed. To improve, it’s usually a minimum of three days a week. After a break, it usually takes about two weeks of consistent swimming to get your water feel back.
Now go slay that (much smaller) dragon! Again.