The Professional triathlete does the sports for a living. The age grouper does it for the love. What can you as an age grouper learn from the Pro? Don’t forget, they too started off in the amateur ranks and worked their way up to the elite level. They too needed guidance and had to learn from their predecessors. You can pick up some valuable ammo from the Pros when we go open water triathlon racing. By keeping it simple and incorporating the following five open water tricks into your swim race routine, you too can save valuable time at the next triathlon event
- Position, Position, Position.
You can easily save up to a minute on your overall swim finish time simply by standing in the right place before the start. How is that possible? Well, let me recall my own exploits at a world cup race in Sydney way back in 1997 and the World Triathlon Championships that followed about a month after that in Perth.
For Sydney, I had the idea of starting on the far left of the pontoon whilst the rest of the pro field huddled on the right. I figured that to have some open water to myself on the left would be a lot faster that the washing machine boxing match on the right. By half way, I was trailing and came out third last as I plunged back into the water for lap 2.
Fortunately with a lot of effort I managed to get back into the third pack during the swim and that was enough to move me up the field on the bike leg. Had I missed that pack, my race would have been history before it even started simply because I botched the swim start by standing in the wrong position.
Fast forward 4 weeks later and I am lining up with Simon Lessing, Greg Welch, Chris McCormack and co at the World Champs in Perth. This time I opted for the huddle on the right and figured I would gun it from the start and hope for the best. I managed to get myself in front by turn one and eventually came out of the water in third spot just behind Lessing and ahead of some of the best in the world. How did I do it? I stood in the right position before the start of the race.
I did not swim much faster than I did in Sydney but managed to get to the front of the pack this time. How do you learn from this? Same rule applies. How will position help you? You get to swim with faster swimmers and more often than not, are virtually “pushed” from behind into a faster swim time. You also gain more self-confidence from swimming closer up front in the field and that often delivers faster swim times. So look out for a good starting position, it could shave minutes off your swim times
- Warm-up before the plunge
You might notice that the pros often go through a rigorous swim warm-up routine before the start of any race they participate in. They need to be geared and ready to go when that gun goes off. Their heart rate will go from 70 bpm to 160bpm in less than fifty metres. Without a good warm-up routine, these pros will lack the fire power needed to swim hard from the start and by the time they find their rhythm, the race leaders will be long gone. You never feel fantastically good when you first climb into a pool to start your swim training sets do you? You need a couple of laps before you get into the groove and swim faster right? The same rule applies at the races. You cannot expect to swim fast if you dive into the water “cold”. What you need to do is get in the water prior to the race start and swim for a few minutes. A couple of 20m sprints with some easy swimming in between should do the trick. We are talking maximum five minutes in the water before you get out and wait for the gun. You can certainly save at least 30 seconds plus by warming up adequately over an Olympic distance triathlon. I do concede that at some events it may not be possible to get into the water and warm-up, either due to the water being extremely cold or due to the race organisers and logistics. You then need to take along a set of rubber cords and do some dry land swimming with the cords where you simulate the freestyle stroke and loosen up the arms and shoulder. It isn't ideal, but it is certainly better than no warm-up at all.
- Swim Straight
This sounds pretty self-explanatory but you would be amazed at how bad a triathlete's navigational skills are when they plunge into the water. If you lack the skill to swim straight to the marker buoys and instead opt for a twisty swim approach, you could end up swimming as much as 200m further over a 1500m swim. That 200m “extra” swim distance can add at least an extra four minutes onto your finish time over the Olympic distance.
You need to be sure of the exact course yourself and not be content to rely on the athletes in front of you, hoping they will swim straight and you can just follow. Before the swim start, look for land markers on the route that you can use to navigate you way around swim course. A good pair of goggles is also essential to ensure that your vision is not restricted and you can see the marker buoys easily enough. If your goggles do mist up or take in water during the swim, stop and take a few seconds to fix them, look up and make sure you are on the right “straight” line before continuing to swim on.
Yes, it is legal to draft in the swim section of any triathlon. It does not produce the exact same benefits as drafting does on a bicycle but it can certainly help you swim faster and save you energy during the race. The idea is to find an athlete or pack of swimmers that are swimming slightly faster than you and hook in and try to swim off their pace. The ideal position to draft off in the swim is when you swim either to the left or right of the swimmer in front of you with your head positioned around their knee/hip area. It does take some practice swimming so close to someone without actually hampering their stroke or yours.
The second best spot to draft off would be to swim on someone’s feet. The biggest problem with being directly behind is the lack of vision as their kicking motion produces air bubbles which can make the swim extremely annoying and uncomfortable. Just off the feet and to the side of the swimmer in front of you is the better position to draft off with. You will be amazed at how much easier it is to swim and faster to when the swimmer in front of you “toes” you around the swim course. You often hear the war stories after the race of how someone” just missed” the swim pack in front of them and had they managed to get on the feet, how much faster their swim time would/could have been. They are not just talking big as drafting in the swim can potentially save them and you both time and energy reserves at the next race stop.
- Start fast! What?
This last trick relates directly to the trick of drafting off the swimmers in front of you. If you do not start fast, especially over the shorter distances of Sprint and Olympic triathlon, you often end up swimming with the slower swimmers and chasing for the entire duration of the swim. The problem with starting fast is that you need train your body to be able do it. Starting too fast for some will result in them “blowing” completely out in the water at the half way point and limping home for their slowest swim times ever. You need to simulate a race start in training and open water swim practices. “Fartlek” swim training is the best method of training your body to adapt to being able to start fast during a race, then settle down into a comfortable pace and rhythm (lowering your heart rate) and still being able to pick up the pace again near the end of the swim. Fartlek training requires you to swim fast, then slow, then fast again during training. These mini speed intervals during some of your sets will help condition the body to adapt to the rigours of starting fast during the race and then swimming comfortably the rest of the way. If you can start fast and then adjust to remain comfortable during the rest of the swim, you will swim faster.
These five open water swim tricks will go a long way to helping you swim faster. They all seem pretty obvious but put them into practice and you will be sure to swim faster at the next race you do.
Words: Glen Gore