Go in confident, come out happy. Yes, you can do it, even if the swim’s not your favorite leg (yet). Here’s how to shore up your technique, your training plan and even your mindset. Get ready to rule the water.
1. Swim less, more often.
The No. 1 mistake coaches see triathletes make: getting in and just swimming the yardage of the race session after session after session. “All that really happens toward the end of the session is that their efficiency breaks down, and they’re teaching themselves the bad habits they get [into] when they’re tired,” says Grant Holicky, head coach at RallySport Aquatic Club in Boulder, Colo. The result? Not only do you not get faster, but you learn to waste valuable energy that you’ll need for the bike and the run. “That’s why we tell our athletes to swim more often, but we want them to swim less. Swim for 20 or 30 minutes and really dial in that great technique over and over again. When you feel it break down, you’re done. Come back the next day.”
Here’s the tricky part: Everyone has his or her own efficiency leaks. So the best way to find yours is to ask around for a reputable swim instructor or coach in your area and get an evaluation. They can usually pinpoint what you need to work on pretty quickly.
2. Give your kick the boot.
Furious kicking? That’s much more likely to get you exhausted than get you to the next buoy faster, says Erica Smith, swim coach for the University of Michigan triathlon team and owner of BuoyantSwim instruction and training. “Using these major muscle groups depletes your glycogen stores without giving you a lot of propulsion in return,” she says. The overall propulsion you get from a kick is anywhere from 6 to 25 percent, according to research—and in open water, it’s on the low side of that. While the exact number is hotly debated, the point is that there’s not a lot to be gained from overly vigorous kicking. The ideal kick helps you maintain your balance and body position in the water. If your kick is working for you, keep it. But don’t let anyone talk you into trying to emulate a torpedo blade.
No matter how fast your kick is, make sure you’re working it like a swimmer, not like a cyclist or runner. Try this test: Flip onto your back, arms in a streamline overhead. Now kick down the length of the pool. If your knees break the surface, you’re “running” down the pool. Ankle flexibility may be part of the problem. “There’s no shame in using fins during some kick sets—they can help you with proper technique by compensating if your ankle flexibility is limited, and they will likely help you correct too much knee flexion,” Smith says.
3. Glide less, stroke more.
It’s not your imagination—the pros’ arms are moving really fast these days. And there may be benefits to a higher stroke rate. Research by Scott McLean at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, found that when athletes increased their stroke rates, it didn’t cost them more oxygen than when they moved their arms more slowly.
“Shorter, faster strokes allow you to adapt to rough water better,” says McLean, professor of kinesiology at Southwestern. “It’s like trail running; the only way to make progress over all the rocks and roots is to take shorter strides. In wavy conditions, shorter strokes allow you to maintain more contact with the water and make the accommodations you need.” Plus, he says, with longer strokes, any asymmetries you have start to magnify. So, say, that little pull to the left could end up forcing you to have to make extra corrections to stay on course.
To practice increasing your stroke rate, you could try using a swim metronome to inch up your natural rate gradually. Or, teach your arms to turn over a little more quickly by doing some laps with the fist drill (simply close your hands into fists and swim that way), or do freestyle by keeping your head out of water (the way you’ll keep your feet from sinking is to get your stroke rate up). Is there an optimal stroke rate? “There are a range of stroke rates that can be equally economical,” he says. “The key is what works for you without physical consequences.”
4. Create chaos in the pool.
Train for the race, not just the distance, Holicky says. That means preparing for feet in your face, and arms landing, well, pretty much anywhere. “Get used to the feeling of being in contact with people,” he says. “We sometimes put three people in a lane and tell them to swim a 200—and they have to make contact with the person next to them every time they take a stroke. I’ve known athletes who gave their buddies kickboards and said, ‘Make it really wavy around me.’” Because remember that there may be an entire ocean to swim in, but someone will invariably be right on top of you.
5. Stop thinking of “race pace” as a single thing.
You’re going to speed up to pass people, get slowed down at buoys, and maybe even start too fast (not recommended, but let’s just say we’ve heard it happens). So train for it. “Everyone should be doing some sets where they use a moderate pace, build and negative split,” says Smith. “This gives you a sense of what the different speeds feel like. Because in open water, you can’t tell, and you have to just go by feel.”
More reasons to add intervals into some training sessions rather than slogging out everything at a single pace: “On the track, people are quick to do interval workouts. It’s worth doing that in the water, too,” says Holicky, who is also a coach with Apex Coaching. “The faster you go, the easier it is to get your race pace down to that speed.”
6. Yes, you do need to do flip-turns.
You’re not “cheating” by pushing off the wall every lap. True, there’s no wall to push off in open water, but flip-turns help you maintain momentum so you can work on your stroke, and they teach you how to be smooth—and keep your lane moving efficiently. (That said, see No. 8 for the exception.)
There is no shock like the shock of cold water on a body that has no idea what’s coming. If you’re doing a cold-water race, practice getting used to what your body will do when you get in. “We typically do full-body cold-tub immersion for five to 10 minutes after practice,” Holicky says. “We’re out there with a trash can and ice water on the pool deck for about two weeks before the race. We haven’t done research on it, but our athletes say it helps to get used to that feeling of having your breath taken away when you’re in a safe environment and you’re standing in a bucket you can get out of.”
If you can, you should get in the water on race morning for temperature acclimation. “Cold water can be unsafe!” says coach Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26 in Santa Monica, Calif. He advises to walk in until a waist-deep level, stoop down to neck depth and lower your head and face to enter the water for several seconds. Repeat head bobbing a few times for acclimation. “The ice-cream freeze headache will come and be relieved prior to race start—this is key. You can then decide if the cold temperature is safe for you since there are no regulated water temperature cut-offs.”
8. Perfect your start.
Here’s how to start stronger:
• Shore start: If the race starts on land or ankle-deep water, run until it’s deep enough that you’re comfortable doing dolphin dives to give yourself momentum. Push off the bottom with your hands and then with your feet. “When you feel the dives become more about going up and down and less about moving forward, it’s time to start swimming,” Holicky says.
• In-water start: In the pool, practice getting started from a dead stop (floating or treading water), and you’ll get better at this type of race start, says Smith. Try doing flip-turns without touching the wall; this helps you figure out how to build momentum without any help, she says.
9. Roll with it.
Swimming in rough water is like running through an earthquake—the “ground” keeps shifting. That’s the adventure of it. You can’t change it or make it more predictable, so your job is to simply control your body position and enjoy the crazy ride.