Essential Skills for Open Water Swimming Part 2
Train these open-water skills to reap the benefits of your pool training in the open water.
By Scott Wrigley, MSc, CSCS, CPT, FNS, PN1, USAT Level 1 Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, US Masters Swimming Level 2 Coach
As I discussed in part 1, the controlled environment of a pool is great when training for an open-water swim. However, before diving from the pool into an open-water race, you should train scenarios and skills specific to open-water to set yourself up for race day success.
In part 1, I discussed mass starts and bilateral breathing. In part 2, I examine the following:
Whether competing for a podium spot or targeting a personal record, endurance sports are about getting between two points as fast as possible. As the old saying goes, the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line.
However, when it comes to swimming, the ideal head position is head down with a slight angle, approximately 5-10%. This helps to keep your hips and legs in a streamlined position, making you more efficient and faster in the water (read about how head position impacts your overall body position in the water here). In a pool setting, it is easy to swim straight without moving your head from this ideal position as the water is clear, and you have the black line of the pool to aid you.
However, conditions in the open water are typically murkier, and there is no black line to orient yourself and help keep you on course. In addition to natural impediments to swimming straight, such as current, open water also tends to bring out imbalances in swimmers' strokes. Without the aid of a pool's black line, swimmers may find themselves drifting either right or left.
So, what do you do? Train the skill of sighting.
Sighting is the essential skill of using landmarks while swimming to maintain a straight course. Always pick a stationary landmark. You can use the course buoys as your landmark if large enough. If the buoys aren't large enough, there is glare, large waves, or the sun is in your eyes, try to pick a large stationary object directly behind the buoy if available.
The most efficient way to sight is to sight directly into a breath. To do so, press down with one hand and arm during the catch to help elevate your head out of the water. At the same time, arch your back to help keep your legs near the surface and kick harder for a few beats to help maintain your forward momentum. Lift your head only as high as needed so that you can identify your chosen landmark, then immediately roll your head to the side for a breath and continue swimming.
In calm waters, you can lift your head just high enough that your goggles are out of the water. Conversely, you may need to lift your head higher in choppier conditions. In a wavy environment such as the ocean or the Great Lakes, time your sighting so that you are on top of the wave when you sight. This will enhance your view of the whole course and help you sight landmarks. Conversely, if you sight in the trough of the wave (the low portion) you may not be able to identify your chosen landmark.
When you first start the swim, sight multiple times in a row (two to three times in immediate succession) to ensure that you are on course and to make course corrections as needed. If you are swimming straight with little correction needed, sight once every 30 seconds or so. If you notice you need more course correction (for example due to currents), sight more often, about every 15 to 20 seconds.
Of note: if drafting (more on drafting in part 3), you still need to sight. Similar to above, when initially drafting sight more often to ensure the swimmer(s) you are drafting off of is swimming a straight course. Identical to sighting when swimming alone, if you are confident that the swimmer(s) leading is swimming straight, you can save energy and sight less often, but you still need to sight.
Sighting is an essential skill for open-water swimming. Train this skill before race day so that you stay on course and can choose the optimal line based on ever-changing race day dynamics. Practice sighting in the pool by selecting an object on either end of the pool. This can be a clock, a sign on the wall, a lifeguard station, etc. As you swim, practice sighting to identify the object you selected.
Open water swims typically mark out the course athletes are to follow utilizing brightly colored pyramidal or spherical buoys (similar to the images below). Whether an out-and-back, point-to-point, or loop course, athletes typically must change directions (turn) at one or multiple predetermined buoy(s). The right tactics and techniques will help you swim confidently and successfully navigate buoy turn(s) on race day.
Buoy Turn Tactics & Training
As you approach a buoy turn, when you are approximately 10-20 meters out increase your sighting rate so that you are sighting every breath or every other breath. Increasing your sighting allows you to make course corrections based on other athletes' actions and the buoy's position. This will set you up to choose the best route to the buoy and execute a quick buoy turn based on race day dynamics.
Once you are through the turn, identify the next buoy and make course corrections as necessary by sighting two to three times in a row as you did at the beginning of the swim. Once you are on course and swimming in a straight line, resume sighting every 15-30 seconds as dictated by course conditions.
As you approach the buoy, you want to position yourself in the pack so that you are swimming as close to the buoy as possible, with fellow competitors on your outside. You want to swim the fastest line possible to decrease your distance and time in the water. The fastest line through the buoy is a tangent (a straight line that intersects with the outside of the buoy) from your starting position.
For example, if you turn right around the buoy, you want the buoy on your right side and fellow competitors on your left. Not only is swimming the tangent the fastest line, but it sets you up for a quick buoy turn and forces your competitors wider, adding distance and time to their swim, giving you a competitive advantage.
If you are a beginner or uncomfortable in the scrum of a mass start, instead of taking the tangent, take the outside line around the buoy. Most athletes are attempting to take the fastest line, as described above. When the first buoy is close to shore, or you are swimming in a pack, a traffic jam can occur around the buoy. Contact with other athletes is likely in the vicinity of the buoy, and it is not uncommon to be hit, kicked, and even swam over. While slightly increasing distance and thus time in the water, taking the outside line around the buoy reduces the likelihood of contact with other athletes, allowing you to swim comfortably and navigate confidently.
As you get closer to the buoy, approximately 10-20 meters out, slightly increase your stroke rate and kick. The benefit of increasing your stroke rate and kick is two-fold.
First, increase your speed in the water. We aren't talking about a dramatic increase in speed, such as sprinting. Just a slight increase to help you get clear of fellow competitors so that you avoid the scrum near the buoy and have clearer water to execute a quick turn.
Second, increasing your kick helps to maintain a good body position in the water (more on body position here) and helps to propel you around the buoy.
After executing your turn, keep your stroke rate and kick up for a few meters to help get you back up to your race pace. Once at race pace, resume your normal stroke rate and kick cadence.
Train this in the pool by adding surges into your longer sets. For example, when doing 150s or 200s, increase your stroke and kick rates for 25 (yards or meters depending on your pool) in the middle (at 75 for the 150s, 100 for the 200s). After the 25, fall back into your normal stroke and kick rates for the remainder interval.
There are two main approaches to navigating a buoy turn: the standard and the corkscrew. The type of turn you utilize will depend on your comfort level and race-day dynamics.
The first, the standard turn, is a great option for beginners or when you are unable to get clear of traffic around the buoy. I call it the standard because it is not much different than your normal freestyle stroke. As you pass the buoy, the arm on the side of the buoy pulls at an angle towards the midline of your body (instead of straight back) followed by a normal recovery while the outside arm executes a normal stroke. Depending on the degree of the buoy turn, you may need to execute multiple angle pulls with the inside arm to turn around the buoy. In addition to being relatively simple to execute, the standard buoy turn has the advantage of maintaining your rhythm and cadence through the buoy turn. It is also great in close quarters when you don't have the space to execute a corkscrew turn.
The second, the corkscrew turn, is more advanced but a quick way to change direction when you have the space to execute it. To perform the corkscrew turn, roll onto your back towards the buoy as your inside shoulder passes the buoy (as if transitioning into a backstroke). However, instead of a normal backstroke entry, your recovering arm enters the water perpendicular to your body and parallel to the buoy (as if you are trying to put your arm around the buoy). Immediately flip back onto your stomach and into freestyle to complete a 90-degree turn and resume your normal stroke. If turning 180 degrees, execute the corkscrew maneuver as described above twice. For visualization of this technique, here is a great video from 220 Triathlon.
Both the standard and corkscrew buoy turn techniques should be trained prior to race day. Have another athlete stand in the water at waist height to mimic a buoy and practice turning around them. In the pool, removing a lane line will create ample space to practice buoy turns.
Before jumping into the open water from the pool, you should train scenarios and skills specific to open-water swimming. These include mass starts and bilateral breathing (discussed in part 1) as well as sighting and buoy turns. Practicing sighting and buoy turns as I describe above will set you up to confidently navigate and swim the best line come race day.
In part 3, I examine the advanced skills of drafting and dolphin dives.