Open water racing strategy

For some people, the prospect of open water swimming can be the most daunting part of a triathlon. For others, the main aim is just getting through it as easily and as quickly as possible.

Open water swimming takes place in beautiful locations; at inland lakes and rivers or along the coastline. Each venue brings its own unique set of added challenges and variables to the race. When swimming in a lake you can have crosswinds, glare from the sun, weeds, and stones and unseen hazards underfoot on entry and exit. In rivers you have the challenges of currents; fast- and slow-moving water, and upstream and downstream currents can all affect the race. When navigating coastal swims, you have the added perils of waves, salty water, wildlife, and sometimes a very stony run up the beach. The one thing all these race locations have in common is your fellow competitors and their proximity racing next to you.

Swimming is all about technique and if you’re constantly having to adjust your stroke, change your body position and work your way around people, this will all have a negative effect on your swimming, in terms of efficiency, and will in most cases slow you down.

Race strategy

1 – Be the Last One in!

Let’s be honest. In England, it’s more than often the case that the water is cold. Warm muscles work much more efficiently than cold ones, therefore I believe that there is no point in getting in right at the beginning and then getting colder and colder waiting for the starting horn. Yes, there is an argument for getting in a little early to be able to develop a small amount of feel for the water by doing a few strokes and acclimatising yourself. All this really means is getting your face wet and allowing that cold water shock to pass, and this really only takes a couple of seconds. Once you’ve got your face in the water and you’ve had that initial shock of breathing in sharply, then you’re pretty much acclimatised. By getting in the water too early, you risk damaging your swim efficiency because of the way your muscles will then react. Colder temperatures make it harder for muscles to contract due to reduced oxygen release. Warmer temperatures do the opposite, making it easier for muscles to work efficiently.  Avoid getting into the water too early so as your body doesn’t start wasting energy trying to warm itself up. You should be training for cold-water races prior to the event, so as to avoid cold water shock and its nasty disadvantages.

Now we’re in the water, let’s get the race started.

2 – Find Some Space

Whether starting on land or in the water, there is going to be a side where the distance to the first buoy seems slightly shorter. Most people will congregate here. In most cases, the first turning buoy can be as little as 300m-400m from the start line. Most start lines are about 15m-20m wide, so if you apply Pythagoras’s Theorem you are actually only swimming around half a metre further if you go from the other side to everyone else. There are other benefits; fewer people are likely to hit you, you can stretch and swim your own stroke, you won’t get pushed off course by people swimming into the side of you…basically you miss out on what’s referred to as the ‘washing machine effect’. As we said, technique is the most important thing and taking this slightly longer, but calmer, route allows you to focus on that.

3 – swim the short way around

Before a race, have a really good look at the satellite pictures of the race venue and the course that you are going to be swimming. Have a look at what physical features are around the venue, work out where the start and finish lines are and where you need to make turns. Having a strong image in your head of where you are going in the lake, river or coastline, is going to give you a better understanding of what direction you are or should be swimming. When you get to the actual venue and you can see where the buoys are in the lake, have a look at physical objects that are in line with them. This may mean getting to the race venue a little early to do some research but it’s going to help make your sighting a lot easier. When it comes to swimming the race, we all know that looking forward and swimming with your head up is a hard way to swim.

Keeping your head down for longer is a more efficient and streamlined way to swim. This will allow you to swim faster for longer. When you feel you want to take a look to see if you’re going in the right direction only do so for a split second to get a snapshot then get your head back down and process what you saw. You only need to lift your head up far enough to get your eyes just out of the water; any higher than this is going to unbalance your body and your legs are going to start sinking. When you’ve lifted your eyes out of the water, continue to turn your head to the side, take a deep breath in and then put your face back down. Keep looking for those bigger objects you spotted pre-race. This can make it much easier and you don’t have to look as often. If you’re drafting in someone’s bubbles make sure you’re having a look as well as they could be going the wrong direction.

4- Understand the Race Conditions

Remember all the other variables that present a challenge that we mentioned earlier as these will also influence your ability to swim efficiently around the course.

Crosswinds can have a large impact on your ability to swim in a straight line. I suggest picking an object like a tree or beach hut that is slightly to the side of where you want to go, in the opposite direction to the way the wind is going to push you. Aim for that object and this will mean every time you look up to do your sighting, you haven’t got to adjust so much.

Glare can be a big issue, especially as a lot of races are in the early morning. You can’t do much about it and you still need to be able to see, so it’s worth investing in some mirrored goggles like the Zone3 Vapour Swim Goggles. These act like sunglasses and give you much better visibility in these conditions.

Where there are currents, you need to know whether you are going with or against the current, or even if it changes through the course like in an out-and-back swim in a river. You will need more energy to go against a current and can maximise stroke efficiency and low effort levels racing with it. Drafting can become very important in races affected by currents. If you are with someone and drafting close behind them, it’s going to save you a lot of energy when you’re working against the current.

5 – Swim with Efficiency

This is just discipline number one, you have got two other sports to do after this so you need to get through the swim as easy and as efficiently as possible. You want to have come out of the swim having swum fast but having expended as little energy as possible. If your body position is at a slight angle when you swim, a good wetsuit will do wonders for you. A wetsuit will lift your legs and hips up, therefore decreasing the frontal drag on the rest of your body, meaning all your energy will go towards making you move forwards, rather than your body working hard to keep your lower body in a good position. Drafting becomes important here too. I know I said before it’s nice to swim in your own space, but swimming up behind someone, right in their bubbles, will allow you to put a lot less effort in. The more comfortable you get at sitting in behind someone and using that draft, the better. You can do this in a pool with a training partner. Drafting allows you to conserve energy and means that those in front of you are doing a lot more of the sighting, saving you from having to do so many checks which can affect technique overall.

Written by Ed Castro