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For many athletes the swim portion of an Ironman is a significant challenge. Limited visibility, creatures lurking beneath you, people all around kicking and thrashing their arms, and the cold, choppy water are all different from the typical training environment in the pool. For some, simply swimming 2.4 miles in an Ironman is enough of a challenge!
The reality is that preparing for open-water swimming, though challenging, can be fun. As you become more aware of your surroundings and develop your skills, you will approach open-water swimming with renewed confidence. For many athletes, training in open-water conditions regularly is not possible, but some of the same skills and techniques can be developed in the pool. Use these six techniques in the pool to prepare for your Ironman swim.
1. Find someone to get close to.
The most nerve-wracking part about open-water swimming for many is the commotion created by hundreds of people swimming around you. To simulate swimming in close quarters, try group swims with three to five of your training partners in the same lane. Work together through a set of 10×25 or 10×50. Start slow and easy, and intentionally bump into each other lightly. Gradually pick up the pace through the set. Touch feet and calves, and swim closer than normal with a relaxed arm recovery phase of your stroke. Swim three, four or five abreast in a single lane. Too often, people scramble in the open water and swim tight, incurring more lactic acid, and eventually losing their momentum, falling off pace. The extra intensity can trigger anxiety too. Use this set to practice maintaining your composure while swimming, and holding your form while in close proximity to others no matter what comes your way.
2. Your start can determine your finish.
Typically, where you are at 400m into your Ironman swim is where you end up at the finish of the swim. If you are a middle of the bell curve swimmer, a great start can impact your Ironman swim finish time by eight to 10 minutes with relatively the same effort. By 400m you are established into your draft group, and it is hard to move up significantly. A slow start usually means a slower draft group and a slower finish time.
Starting well is about being able to maintain your best stroke technique comfortably in traffic, picking a start position that places you in a competitive spot, and having strong starting technique.
To practice your start technique in the pool, try timed 50’s with a deep water, or floating, start and no push off the wall. Use a scissor kick to start and have your body horizontal with your feet near the surface, while you are floating on your stomach. This will help to give you maximum acceleration. Start your interval with five or six powerful strokes.
If you have access to a zero-entry pool, perform run-in starts and water exits. When running into the water, lift your feet and knees above the water. Think about how the trailing leg of a hurdler clears a hurdle. Running over the water is faster than running through the water. When you dive into the water, use a streamlined position and surface with 10 to 15 strokes of a quick sprint.
With both starts, emphasize keeping your head down. You don’t need to sight for the first 50 to 75 meters of a race start. You will swim faster, and I promise you won’t get lost! Initially, try this alone at around 80% maximum speed, then gradually work up to doing it with partners at 100% speed.
3. Draft like a genius.
Drafting is a crucial element to improving performance in open-water swimming. Staying in another person’s draft will help to eliminate drag by 20 to 30 percent, thus reducing effort at a given pace or allowing you to swim faster. The best drafting scenario is where you are working hard to stay on someone’s feet. You will shave minutes off your swim time. As mentioned, the prime draft group is found with a strong start. Being comfortable and optimizing the draft is the next challenge.
In the pool, experiment with swimming on someone’s hip. This is the very best position for reducing resistance and will place you in a good position tactically to swim around people in front. It does slow down the person you are drafting off of slightly, which can be an astute tactic if you are struggling to keep up. Swimming side-by-side and shoulder to shoulder is the worst scenario as it actually slows you, the person you are next to, and any group formed behind you.
Swimming directly behind someone, on their feet, is the fastest way for two people to swim, creating the narrowest wake and least amount of drag in the water. While you get slightly less draft off of the lead swimmer than when positioning on the hip of your training partner or opponent, the two of you will move quicker through the water as a tandem unit.
4. Are you a zig-zagger?
Sighting is one of the most important aspects of successful open-water swimming. Swimming straight means covering less distance, which is appealing to most Ironman athletes! It also allows you to peek ahead and see how the race is unfolding in front of you so you can make some tactical decisions on navigating to where a draft pack might be forming.
To work on this technique in the pool, do some sighting drills. Three to four times per pool length, lift your head up to sight. Start with your nose at the waterline, and gradually get comfortable with your chin at the waterline. Make sure not to drop your legs by increasing your kick slightly as you sight. Pick a focal point at the end of the pool to ensure you are sighting. During these drills, you can slow your stroke down and incorporate fingertip drag into the recovery portion of your stroke to help keep you loose and relaxed.
Make it your goal not to lose momentum when you lift your head, feeling a sense of steady flow through the water. To get really comfortable with the skill, practice swimming an entire length head up, with shallow legs and a relaxed recovery phase in your stroke. Keep in mind that sighting too often in a race will slow you down; you will be much faster if you are looking every eight to 10 strokes as opposed to every four to six
Another good way to analyze your “straight swimming” is by swimming several strokes or a whole length of the pool with your eyes closed. Running into the lane ropes will make it obvious which direction you naturally gravitate toward, and you can work on straightening out your stroke.
Additionally, a zig-zagger is harder to draft off! If you feel someone has been getting a free ride in your draft for a while, or is a persistent toe tapper, a couple of zig-zags may snap the drafting elastic, creating a gap between you and your tailgater.
5. Cruise through the turn buoys.
Once you are well into the race, the most common place to lose your drafting pack is through a turn. Groups in Ironman tend to string out as they round a buoy, pace changes and there is greater chance to leave a gap to that hard-earned draft.
Turns do not have to be done in the open water; they can easily be practiced at your local pool. Pull the lane ropes out and float a couple of buoys or kick boards in the deep end. Try the turns solo, then attempt them with a group. As you approach the buoy, let your hand and arm lead you into and around the turn. Practice left and right hand turns.
When you approach a buoy, there are a couple of techniques that will help you to come out of a turn first. A 90-degree, right angle turn is much faster than swimming in a wider, curved arc. You lead hand at stroke entry should drive you in the direction you want to turn. Try taking the turns on the inside line, then try from the outside of a group. You will find that the inside is much faster, but also rougher with more contact. If you are outside, commit to swimming a little faster. Be aware that you need to increase your stroke rate and kick harder as you accelerate out of the turn. Keep your head down and avoid the temptation to site until you are back up to speed, after eight to 10 strokes.
6. Go the distance.
Athletes gain a great sense of confidence swimming the race distance prior to event day. There is a nice fitness adaptation as well. I like to have my Ironman athletes swim the 2..4-mile distance non-stop three weeks prior to race day. After a very short 200m warm up, start at a strong, but aerobic, pace. Get a time split every 400m to see if you are staying consistent.
You can gradually build up to this swim distance over the six weeks prior to race day. Sets like 38×100 (15 sec rest), 19×200 (20 sec rest) help bridge the gap.
Truly, the best way to prepare for open-water swimming is to practice. The more comfortable you are in the water and with your surroundings, the more efficient your Ironman swim will be. Make use of these techniques in your pool workouts, and nothing will catch you off guard you when you hit the open water.
LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to tackle your first triathlon or to perform at a higher level. Follow him at @LifeSportCoach.