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Race Tips

Swim Turn Buoys Better

Though they may seem like a minor part of the race-day experience, learning how to swim around turn buoys properly can make a huge difference. We break down how to do it right.

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The open water brings many unique challenges. Many are obvious: There are more waves, no clear path to follow, and plenty of competitors swimming any which way they want. And of course, there are no walls to give you a break! However, one of the most overlooked aspects of open-water swimming is navigating turn buoys. Buoys come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re all used to mark the course that triathletes are racing.

Managing buoys presents a host of challenges. As buoys mark the path you need to take, you need to be aware of where they are at all times. If you’re not, or the pack you’re relying on to guide you isn’t staying focused on the next buoy, you can find yourself drifting off course, losing valuable seconds—or even worse—minutes. Turning around the buoy itself requires a different swimming action than normal swimming. Depending on the size and shape of the buoy, the turn can be a quick reversal in direction around a smaller buoy, or it can be more of a gradual, circular pattern around a much larger one. In both cases, there is a disruption to your swimming rhythm, you’ll likely encounter traffic, and you’ll have to get back into your groove as soon as possible after the turn.

One of the major difficulties with buoys is that everyone has the same goal—taking the shortest path around the buoy! If it’s a big race, you’re swimming in a pack, or it’s early in the race with a short stretch the first buoy, a lot of people are aiming to get to the same place at the same time. There’s a real possibility that someone could swim over you, and you certainly don’t want to end up under the buoy.

RELATED: A Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming

Get Better at Managing Buoys

From a strategic standpoint, the biggest idea is to get in and out. As you approach the buoy, you want to pick up your stroke rate and your speed. If possible, set yourself up to move towards the front of the pack so that you can get out of the wash with as little contact as possible. While this might take a little more effort than you’d like, it ensures that you have a clearer path to the buoy, and it reduces the likelihood that you’ll experience any mishaps during the turn itself.

How you choose to turn around the buoy will depend on the size and shape of the buoy. It’s a large buoy, the turning radius won’t be as sharp, and you can simply swim around it with a more or less normal stroke. Stay tight to the buoy—or go wide if there’s a lot of traffic—keep your head up a bit and steer your head towards the buoy, much like if you were running around the curve of a track.

If it’s a small buoy, you can execute a crossover technique. If you’re turning to the right, you’ll get more on your right side and pull with the right arm crossing across and under your body. With your left, recover over the water and pull straight back. You’ll arch your back as you do this to circle around the buoy. The buoy should be small enough that it only takes a few strokes to get around. If it takes a lot more, consider the traditional swimming turn described far above.

If you’re just getting started with open-water swimming, and not particularly comfortable swimming in the same confined space as your competitors, consider staying out of traffic when approaching the buoy. Take a wider, more clear path. While this will cause you to swim extra distance, it ensures that you don’t get caught up in the madness, avoiding an experience that deters you from venturing back out into open water.

RELATED: How to Sight When Swimming in Open Water

Training for “Better Buoys”

Knowing what to do will only get you so far. To be confident in your ability to manage buoys, you need to practice the skills, as well as build the physical capacity to execute those skills. It’s not easy to accelerate ahead of your pack to get to the buoy ahead of time, or to accelerate away from the buoy to get clear of the wash. You also must be fit enough to recover from that acceleration, as it does you no good if you’re exhausted for the rest of the race. Likewise, you need to be skilled at getting back into your rhythm. In endurance events, rhythm is everything and every buoy breaks up your rhythm. These are all skills that you need to train—just like any part of triathlon.

The following workouts are structured to provide you with the opportunity to practice the skills we’ve discussed, as well as work on the fitness needed to successfully execute these skills. The workouts are about 3,000 yards/meters each. If you want more volume or less volume, simply take the sets below and scale the repetition numbers up or down, maintaining the basic structure. You can comfortably slot these workouts just about anywhere in your training week, as they’re not killer sessions.

RELATED: Mastering Triathlon Swim Training

(Photo: Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

No Walls, No Problem Workout

The purpose of this workout is to work on the technical and physical skills of navigating buoys. I like to start and end each practice with a short series of floating exercises to help establish comfort in the water. The first set, we’re working on establishing great timing and rhythm of the stroke. Then we’re going to practice the skill of building up speed. You need to be able to pick up the speed if you want to get in and out of the buoy effectively.

The next set is some simple practice of performing the crossover technique described far above. Start on one side of the lane and then turn around an imaginary point, ending up on the outside of the lane. Perform a slight build into the turn and a short acceleration out of the turn so you get used to the idea of always changing speeds when performing turns.

During the longest set, we’re going to work on creating speed and managing any fatigue that comes as a result. You’ll perform building repetitions where you’re practicing accelerating into the buoy. It’s about learning how to pick up speed as well as developing the fitness to do so. After those sprints, you’ll move into some aerobic work where you settle in and learn to keep it moving after sprinting.

Warm-up

200 EZ choice; perform a 10 second Ball Float after each 50

8x:
75 as 25 Underwater Recovery, 25 Over-Under freestyle, 25 freestyle
25 freestyle build your rhythm to fast

Take ~20 seconds rest between repetitions

Main set

8×50 freestyle with no wall turns*
Take ~20 seconds rest between repetitions

*Perform a slight build into the wall, perform a crossover turn, and accelerate out of the turn for 4 strokes.  Move from the one side to the other of the lane during the turn.  Alternate sides, if possible.

4×25 freestyle; build to fast
1×250** freestyle as 200 steady + 50 solid
4×25 freestyle; 12 stroke dead-start sprints
1×250** freestyle as 150 steady + 100 solid
4×25 build to fast
1×250** freestyle as 100 steady + 150 solid
4×25 freestyle; 12 stroke dead-start sprints^
1×250** freestyle as 50 steady + 200 solid
Take ~30 seconds rest between after all repetitions

** Perform 2 “no wall turns” each 250

^ Let go of the wall, and from a stationary position, go 12 strokes fast then easy for the rest of the 25

Cooldown

200 EZ freestyle; perform a 10 second Ball Float after each 50

Total: 3,000

RELATED: Fitter & Faster Podcast: The Open-Water Swimming Special

Fast In, Fast Out Workout

With this workout, we’re going to continue the themes of picking up the pace into your turns and accelerating out of the turn and back into your rhythm. This first set is designed to prepare for the next set. It starts off with some skill work, focused on improving your pull. Then you’re going to practice an open-water turn, and then practice building up your speed. As with the previous workout, it’s about learning the skill of how to build your speed, as well as building the physical capability to do so.

In the main portion of the set, you want to practice your turning skills. Be aggressive building up your speed into the turn, execute the turn, and then accelerate out of the turn. Push the pace on these to practice how you’ll want to perform your turns in competition. After each turn, you’re going to settle into an aerobic swim. The purpose is to keep moving after your high-effort turn. You’ll descend the 150s from 1-4 to 5-8, getting used to re-establishing a great rhythm. By combining these two aspects, you’re learning how to execute high speed turns as well as get right back into great freestyle swimming.

Warm-up

200 EZ choice; perform a 10 second Ball Float after each 50

6x:
100 with a buoy as 25 Power Pulls + 50 freestyle as few strokes as possible + 25 freestyle build stroke rate to fast
50 freestyle; No wall turn*
25 freestyle; build to fast
Take ~20 seconds rest between after all repetitions

* Perform a slight build into the wall, perform a crossover turn, and accelerate out of the turn for 4 strokes. Move from the one side to the other of the lane during the turn. Alternate sides, if possible.

Main set

8x:
50 freestyle; No wall turn**; build to FAST on these, and accelerate for 10 strokes out of the turn
150 freestyle; steady effort; descend 1-4/5-8 to solid effort
Take ~15-20 seconds rest between after all repetitions

** Perform a FAST build into the wall, perform a crossover turn, and accelerate out of the turn.  Move from the one side to the other of the lane during the turn.  Alternate sides, if possible.

Cooldown

200 EZ freestyle; perform a 10 second Ball Float after each 50

Total: 3,050

RELATED: Practicing Open-Water Swimming in the Pool