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Open Water Swim: Practice, Practice, Practice

How to perfect the open water swim.

At a qualifier for the world championships a few years ago, Sharon Mackinnon, the 2008 world sprint champion in the 45 to 49 age group, found herself behind a pack of athletes during the the swim in Gulliver’s Lake, just outside of Hamilton. As the group started to pull away, Mackinnon realized that they weren’t swimming directly for the turn buoy ahead of them.  Mackinnon, who was taking one head up stroke to site every 10 m, chose her own path and, rather than come out of the water behind the group, beat them to T1 by almost a minute.

Canadians typically are at a disadvantage when it comes to open water swimming compared to athletes from, say, Australia or Southern California, who can enjoy open water swim opportunities almost all year round, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t work on our open water skills. The only way to get more proficient as an open water swimmer is to practice as much as possible. Here are a few tips that will make both your practice sessions and your races more enjoyable this season:

1)      Stay warm. Investing in a wetsuit is almost a mandatory part of being a Canadian triathlete. When you’re making your wetsuit purchase, look for a suit that’s going to be a bit more durable so that you’ll be comfortable using it for regular open water swim practices.

2)      Double cap. Wearing two swim caps will help keep your head warm. In a race, put one cap on, then put your goggles over that cap, then put the race cap provided to you over the top of your goggles. That way, even if you get bumped during the swim, you won’t lose your goggles.

3)      Practice sighting. Even when you’re following a pack, make sure they’re going the right way. Do a head up stroke at least once every 10 m to check and make sure you’re going the right way. Practice finding landmarks to aim for during your training swims and seeing how straight a line you can follow to them.

4)      Bi-lateral breath. In some wavy conditions you might find it’s difficult to breath to one side or the other. Make sure you’re comfortable breathing to either side so you’re ready to handle those situations.

5)      Practice drafting. Unlike on the bike, drafting is perfectly legal in the swim portion of the race. During your training days, work with someone of similar speed and take turns drafting off each other. In a race, make sure you start out fast – your goal should be to get on the feet of someone who is a bit faster than you are to get the benefits of their draft.

6)      Set up open water swims in your pool. One of my favourite drills with my triathlon groups is to have them work on open water swim skills in the pool. We take out all the lanes and swim in circles or do diagonals to help them work on their drafting and sighting skills.-KM