Race Rehearsal Tips for the Triathlon Swim Leg
By Terry Laughlin
As you prepare for a season-opening triathlon, the best use of your practice time will be to actively rehearse what you'd like to do well in the race. But different athletes will race in different ways. Let's examine three levels of ambition.
This Is My First Triathlon
No matter how much pool swimming you may have done, it's different in open water, after the gun goes off and you find yourself surrounded by churning arms and legs. Many first-timers feel suddenly constricted by their wetsuit and spend the bulk of the race hyperventilating on the verge of panic.
So here's your guide for your first triathlon swim:
1. Once the gun sounds, all your instincts are warning you not to fall back. Unless you have a lot of experience in swimming races and particularly experience racing in open water, chasing quickly degenerates into churning.
2. Once you begin churning, the most likely result is rapid exhaustion, anxiety and loss of any feeling of being in control, and no material gain in speed.
3. If you just stop chasing and find your own best pace, the whole experience gets a lot better and probably will not be tiring at all.
In coming weeks, try to get into open water two or three times and practice swimming in your wetsuit. As you do, focus on the following:
* A wetsuit takes away the feeling that you have to keep your arms turning over just to keep from sinking. Take advantage of that by relaxing and enjoy the wonderful security of feeling completely supported by the water.
* Once you feel supported, you can use your arms to lengthen your bodyline on each stroke. Slip your hand into the water, quietly and gently (do whatever it takes to eliminate noise and splash) then extend your hand/forearm fully before the pull. Even more important, take your time reaching.
* Stay well within yourself. Go slower than you think necessary to establish a sense of calm and control. Then focus on one or two specific points of technique. Make sure your head is in line with your body...or that you feel as if you're slipping through a small hole in the water...or that you feel arms, legs and body moving in sync.
* Once you "find your groove," just drop in behind someone moving at what feels like a pace you could sustain indefinitely and glide along. You'll finish the entire race in far better position if you just keep your heart rate down, than if you try to catch or stay with faster swimmers.
You'll probably find yourself passing dozens of competitors on the bike or run if you swim more economically than they do. You'll probably even pass some of them during the latter stages of the swim simply because you're moving at a relaxed, sustainable pace, while others who started too fast will fall behind.
I Have Race Experience and I'm Ready to Finish Higher in My Age Group
A triathlon isn't three events, but one event with three forms of locomotion. Most participants in Olympic-distance events finish a bit faster than those for a 26.2-mile marathon. No one would ever dream of speeding through the first four miles of a marathon. It's the same with swimming the 1,500-meters that opens your triathlon. So train yourself to maintain control during your swim.
Virtually every triathlon swim leg exhibits a degree of chaos, back in the pack. Maintaining a sense of calm, almost Zen-like detachment while swimming in the midst of thousands of churning athletes is the key to swimming a good time,
at a low heart rate.
My goal in open water is to align my body as straight and sleek as a laser beam, and slip a long, clean, tight bodyline through the chop and swells. I make myself aware of every possible force that could knock me from it, whether internal—lifting my head for instance—or external—the buffeting of waves and swells.
Prior to the race, practice these focal points while swimming in open water. On race day, choose the one that feels best to you and use it for the entire swim.
1. Keep your head in line with your spine. Imagine you're being towed by a line at the top of your head, with an action that lengthens your neck. Unless checking your bearings, look directly down as you swim.
2. Swim slowly (in practice, not the race) to acquire a feeling of effortless ease and complete ability to control your movement quality. Then move a bit faster, trying to maintain the same sense of ease and control.
3. Keep a long, needle-like shape as you roll to breathe. In open water, you need to roll farther than in the pool to find air. Think of cutting through the water like an arrow through the air.
By practicing "functional focal points," like those above, you not only improve the economy of your stroke in a real way, you also block out distractions and give yourself the ability to observe all the distractions around you on race day with calm detachment. When you do that, you'll swim much better—and perhaps even learn to enjoy the experience of swimming in challenging conditions.
I'm Aiming for the Podium
If you're aiming for an age-group title, you should begin adding some speed and tactical practice to your open-water rehearsals. In addition to the exercises noted above, develop your ability to stay smooth at racing speed with pacing exercises.
I generally swim in a range of three "gears" in open water practice: Silent is virtually effortless, cruise is a bit faster with some feeling of pace, and brisk represents the effort and pace I'd usually feel in the course of a mile race.
Here are some forms of open-water practice that I use frequently. The first four are good for solo practice. Use the last two when swimming with a group:
Swim silent and blind. Swim as quietly as possible and see how far you can swim—on course—without lifting your head to peek. Start with at least 20 strokes and try to improve to 50 or more.
Repeat above, but this time practice "snapshot" looks and breathing.
Speedplay 1. Alternate rounds of 40 strokes silent with 20 strokes cruise. Try to be just as quiet and splash-free as you accelerate to "cruise pace."
Speedplay 2. Alternate 20 strokes silent/20 strokes cruise/20 strokes brisk. Try to stay just as smooth and fluent at brisk as at silent. Also practice adjusting your tempo in the core, just keeping your arms connected to your torso as you cycle through this repeatedly.
Drafting practice. When swimming with a group, start at the rear and practice "feeling wakes" and not looking very often. Also practice how to advance within the pack by leapfrogging from the "free ride" of one wake to the free ride of another wake further ahead in the pack, like a trout working upstream from rock to rock.
Pickups. Start at the rear of the pack, give the leaders a bit of a head start, then build your tempo and pace steadily from silent through cruise, brisk, as you work your way through the pack. Feel smooth at every speed.