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Preparing for Race Day Swim by Chris Thomas

Training for the race day swim:

You may have seen the cliff bar you tube clip where a triathlete explains that it is important to train how you race so he gets his buddies to beat up on him with very large foam bats as he runs into the water and they continue to beat him up while he is swimming – very funny! The good news is that you don’t have to go that far and the even better news is that the swim is really not that bad – especially if you are PREPARED!

I am a big fan of working the swim to help you prepare properly for race day. If you are not effectively trained for your swim leg you run the risk of taking too much out of yourself physically and emotionally and if that happens then once you exit the water you will pay for it in transition, on the bike and then onto the run. It is worth putting time into the swim and setting up your race form the start!

Following are my tips for swim training for the open water:

Aim for swim consistency:  The harder you find swimming; the more regularly you should swim. Build consistency over time to help you improve and develop a feel for the water.

Change of pace:  One of the biggest mistakes athletes make in training is that they train at one pace. The triathlon swim start, navigation, turning buoys, transitions etc will vary heart rates as well as anxiety levels and requires that you train with variations in effort and pace. Include some long slow distance work as well as longer speed endurance intervals and maximum speed intervals.
* Joining a swim squad can make a real difference to your training, as the sessions should include varied pace and efforts.

Develop strength: Open water swimming requires strength especially if you are swimming in currents or choppy water. Add a strength session to your weekly workouts – this can be as simple as pull work with paddles and or bands or adding push-ups/pull ups to the end of your intervals. You can drag car sponges behind you or swim in a pair of tracksuit pants – it all helps!
Ps – if you are someone who kicks your legs when you are doing pull work then you are missing the intent of the session and you find it hard to get stronger this way. It is an upper body workout and the legs and feet are relaxed.

Swim in your own water: This one is always a hard one for triathletes to get their head around but I would encourage you to swim in your own space – don’t jump straight onto the feet of the person in front and make it easy for yourself.  Using your competitors drag is for race day  - if you really want to improve then you need to swim your own pace in your own water in training. Yes … it is a lot harder but that is what you are there for!

Include drills: There are many drills that will help with your swim technique. Talk to someone who understands the swim stroke, as there may be 1 or 2 things you can work on to help improve your efficiency in the water. Include drills to help you work on efficient and effective breathing patterns for the open water and for improving navigation skills. Hypoxic and bilateral breathing drills will help you prepare for breathing in the open water and polo drills can help you work on timing and navigation.

Train in the open water: Use this session to improve your skills i.e.: work on navigation, pack swimming, pack and deep water starts, using someone’s drag, turning buoys etc. If swimming in the open water makes you anxious then it is even more important that you train in the open water. You can start with small steps and along the shoreline. Sitting and staring at the water until you feel bored and splashing around beforehand can help – give yourself plenty of time to prepare before you swim.

Get used to swimming in your wetsuit: I hate swimming in wetsuits but all the more reason to train in them regularly! Make sure you are putting the suit on correctly as this can make a HUGE difference to how it feels and goes!

Preparation on race day:

Be sure you fully understand the swim course. Is it a deep water start, beach start, how many buoys are there to turn and what direction am I swimming/turning, how many laps will I swim? Is the water clear or murky and how cold is it? Having a good understanding of these things will allow you to feel confident prior to the start can help you to relax.

When it comes to navigation around the course, it can be hard to spot buoys in the water especially if it is choppy or the sun is in your eyes. Instead of trying to spot the buoys you can use a landmark, boat or something more easily visible that sits behind the buoy. This way you don’t have to search so hard as you swim.

It doesn’t matter if you are a professional triathlete, age-group athlete or first timer it is important to warm up well before race start.  The type of warm up and intensity will depend on the individual as well as the event distance. We like to do a run warm up within around 45mins of the race start. The run can include some dynamic warm up exercises and or pick-ups and will depend on your level of fitness and what you do in training. Same goes for the swim warm – an aerobic swim to warm up the whole body is best and if suitable, you should also include some intervals at race pace and we also like to include off-stroke such as backstroke to balance things out.

If you suffer from low to high levels of anxiety about the swim start and the swim leg in general then it is even more important to give yourself plenty of time to warm up in the water or at least get as comfortable as possible with the water prior to your race start. Sitting and staring at the water until you are bored with it and implementing some relaxation techniques can help with anxiety. Get into the water, feel the temperature, look under the water and try to get comfortable with what you are about to do by going through your swim start plan. We suggest that if you are anxious about the swim start then you should let the rush go and count 10seconds after the gun goes and then leave, this way you will have your own space to swim and you don’t have to worry about the chaos.

Extra tip: Wear you goggles under your cap if you are worried about losing your goggles and wear two caps in cold water.


Happy Swimming!

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