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How to move from the pool to the lake

— by Clint Lien

Another season of open water swimming is fast approaching, and it won’t be long before it’s time to dig out the wetsuit. But, before you put a toe into any open water, there are several things you can do in the pool to make the transition a smooth and satisfying one.

Leamington Triathlon Weekend. Photo: Brad Reiter

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While most of the preparation for open water swimming should happen a month or two before the start of the outdoor season, sighting is something you can, and should, practice year round. I regularly dedicate several hundred metres of warm-up time to sighting, having people practice sighting every fifth to seventh stroke. Sighting needs to be effective and smooth in order to hold a straight line and minimize momentum loss.

There are essentially three different ways to sight while swimming:

  1. The first is simply to look up and then back down without taking a breath. Many beginners start with this method.
  2. The second is to sight and breathe. Look up and then, as you dip your head back down, turn to the left or right and grab a breath.
  3. The third method is to breathe and sight. Here you take a breath and then essentially follow your recovering hand to the front, take your bearings, then drop your head.
Sighting in the open water is important.

All three of these methods should be executed within one stroke, and you need to be careful not to drop your hips as you’re taking the sighting stroke. Taking one or two stronger kicks as you’re sighting can help keep your hips up high in the water. Try all three methods until one stands out as the best for you.

Group dynamics

One of the single most significant difference between indoor and outdoor swimming is the proximity to other swimmers – a lot of other swimmers. For many newcomers to the sport, mass starts and drafting are the most intimidating elements. Working on these skills in the pool can help alleviate some of the anxiety at the start line.

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Starting in late winter, I have my group do mass starts in the pool. We might have any- where from 10 to 16 swimmers bunched into two lanes. Many of the swimmers report that these starts are more aggressive than many of the races they’ve been in. Learn to look for feet instead of trying to find clean water. Do it enough and you’ll learn that your worst fears, even if realized – a kick or a punch – are never as bad as you think they’re going to be. You take the hit and keep going.

Photo: Riding Mountain Tri

There are any number of ways to do drafting drills. I have my club form groups of two to four swimmers and have them do longer swims where they switch leads every 50 or 100 metres. Sometimes the front swimmer will hit the wall and stop while the rest pull through. Or the front swimmer can pull over and swim easy while the line goes by. A tougher way is for the last swimmer to accelerate and overtake the line. Even when you’re swimming in a 50-metre pool, this can be more challenging than it sounds. Another fun option is to have the front swimmer in the line stop a metre or two from the wall and do a vertical kick while the rest of the swimmers snake around without touching the wall.

If your group has a good relationship with pool staff, you can get them to pull the lane ropes, drop in some buoys and then practice going around them, too. I’ll start the swimmers off 10 seconds apart at first, then send them off in pairs and, eventually, in groups. It’s always one of the more enjoyable sessions for the group.

To do most of these drills, you need to work together with other swimmers. If you don’t swim with a group, it can be a challenge to get these types of workouts done, but if you can gather a group of triathletes together for the odd workout, you can work in some of these sets.

Clint Lien is the head coach of Victoria’s Mercury Rising Triathlon; mercuryrisingtriathlon.com. Lien’s full article can be found in the March/April 2019 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.