by Coach Steve

"I love the feeling of getting tossed by the water and the constant shifting between giving in to the water and then pulling against it." – Jan Weyant

Swimming in open water gives me a sense of freedom. I truly look forward to it! Gone are the confines of the tiled, walled box filled with chlorinated water. A grid of lane lines forces us to swim in a straight line. With no where else to look, we stare at the line on the bottom, lap after lap, turn after turn. The boundaries can make training monotonous.

I'm psyched when my open-water training and competition days are in sight! But that means making adjustments in my training techniques. Swimming in the pool is good preparation for open-water swimming from a fitness perspective, but let's face it, it's tough to swim straight without lane lines or blue tiles as a guide. There's no place to stand if you need to catch your breath, and no pace clock to measure your progress. This is foreign territory!

For those of you who are relatively new to open-water swimming, here are a few tips:

Warm-up before you take the plunge. While this is good practice for pool and open-water swimming, loosening up your muscles and getting your blood pumping are crucial before you start your open-water swim. Unless you're training or racing in a lake in a warm weather state, the water temperature is bound to be colder than what you are accustomed to in the pool. First do any stretches you would at the pool. Warm up your muscles with forward, backward and cross-over arm swings. You should spend a couple minutes on these exercises before you enter the water. If the water is really cold elevate your pulse by jumping up and down for a minute or so, maybe even a jog down the beach. These steps are particularly important when the water temperature is in the 50s (ouch) to low 60s early in the season!

Stay on course. This is not an easy task, even for experienced swimers. Before you begin your open-water workout, spot a target in the distance to aim for. Examples include a unique looking house, a boat or a tall tree. I don't recommend a cloud or a bird, as you may find yourself swimming out to sea! When racing, make sure you count all the buoys. How many do you pass before you turn? Is the course and out-and-back? A U-turn? A circle? What color are the buoys? I've had difficulty differentiating bathing caps from race buoys at a few races. Of course I ended up swimming in a zig zag, and a few times swam past the turnaround buoys. Not only do you want to minimize your time in the water, you want to make sure you swim the entire course to avoid a DQ!

Sight your target, then breathe. These are two separate actions, beginning with the look forward. You don't want to lift your whole head out of the water to spot your target. Tip your head up and back, making sure you look forward. This lifts your eyes and nose out of the water, but not your mouth. Then put your face back in the water, and take your breath to the side as you normally would.

Draft during your training. Drafting is legal in the swim leg, and a terrific way to conserve energy for the bike and run segments. With a few buddies you can take turns leading and drafting during your training in open-water or the pool. Find your comfort zone, recognizing that you don't want to be so close that you get kicked. But you also don't want to be so far away that you are dropped when the swimmer you're drafting picks up the pace.

Design repeat sets to improve your pacing. After sprinting-out for the first 100-200yards to get a good position, the pack breaks up and you might be on your own for the remainder of the race. Whether you fall behind the leaders or are passing people from earlier heats, you must be confident that you can maintain a strong, consistent effort the entire swim. Don't fade before you hit the beach! If your race swim distance is a mile, 16x 100 yards will help you get a feel for the right pace. You can vary the interval or the effort within a set with different recovery intervals or pacing schemes. You could sprint the first 100 to simulate a race start, then slow to your 'cruise' pace for remainder. You could hold a steady pace for all the reps until the last 3-5 where you take off 1-second per rep, down to sprint pace for the last. As your level of fitness improves, you should see improvements in your pace time.

Practice Bi-lateral breathing in training! Breathing to the right AND left is tough for some swimmers. Most of us have learned to breathe to one side only. But what if all the buoys are on your non-breathing side? How can we keep an eye on people to the right and left if we can't see in both directions? A portion, if not all, of your training should include bilateral breathing.

Modify your stroke/breathing in rough conditions. It's important to be comfortable during your swim. If the conditions are challenging, relax and try a different breathing pattern or arm turnover. In waves you may need to do most, or all, of you breathing on one side. Conserving physical and emotional energy are key in these situations.

Don't panic if you see a creature. One of the bonuses of open-water swimming is there's so much interesting stuff to check out while you're churning up the H2O. The sunrise or sunset, cloud formations, lightening, horse-shoe crabs, and those pesky jelly fish!

Don't swim alone. Enough said.

If you're able to follow these tips, you'll soon discover that open-water swimming is a foreign territory worth getting to know well!

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