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National Champion Powerlifter, in consultation with 2XU open water champion Sam Sheppard.
Apart from a few degrees temperature change, your local pool never changes. Open water swimming’s a wilderness expedition by comparison, and as the Aussie summer heats up, more swimmers (and cyclists and runners!) will be tempted to try out events where there’s water without walls.
At the top level you can have between 20 and 60 competitors in an open water swimming race or leg of a race, but at weekend surf races or popular swimming events you could have 1000 people. You need to learn to adapt to this – you can’t be too devoted to a race plan.
People use the analogy of the cycling ‘peloton’ a lot, but in the water it’s different because no-one else is helping you or telling you where the leaders are – you are very much out there on your own.
Practice for the packs – do as many races as you can (e.g. do surf club races on the weekends just to get used to the crowds) or if you have the chance, get a group or your training squad and swim together as a pack in the pool just so you get used to the positioning.
On race day, don’t start at the front or middle of your wave if you’re not a strong swimmer. Better to be at the end of the pack and off to the side so you don’t get in the way and give yourself less chance of being trampled.
Drafting is the technique of following another swimmer so closely that water and wind resistance are reduced.
“You can either draft off someone from their feet or from their hip,” says 2XU’s open water swimming champion, Sam Sheppard. “Stay about a foot (30cm) behind the swimmer in front if you are drafting off their feet, or stay hard up against their hip, where you’ll get the same benefit if not a little more. The hip is the safer option, because if the swimmer in front takes off you can react quicker.”
Newbies to open water swimming can have a fear of getting kicked in the face, but Sam says it shouldn’t be a concern.
“As long as you’re swimming about a foot behind, you’re still going to get their wash, but you should touch their feet with your hands first before you get kicked in the head. I’ve done a lot of open water swimming and I’ve never been kicked in the head that much, it’s more the punches – but that’s another level.”
Sam says drafting can save you up to 30% on energy, but he warns it’s best not to get caught in the middle of the pack.
“You’ll get pulled along fine in the middle, but you’re going to get punched up a lot more. In a pack of 10 or more people, always try to be on the outside. You’re still going to get the drafting effect, but you do have that room to move if they do go a different direction or if you want to try something different then you’re not boxed in.”
There’s no black line on the bottom to guide you in open water, so swimming in a straight line becomes tough – especially with currents and swell shoving you sideways.
“Develop sight lines – you won’t always be able to look up and see the buoy, so line up a big tree or a building in the background behind your target and aim for that,” Sam says.
The trick is to be able to look up while you swim, but not have to rely on doing it too much. The easiest way is to lift your head forward, use the forward motion to look and then breathe to the side.
“You can practice in the pool – look up once or twice every 50m, but try not to break the rhythm of your stroke or drop your hips when you look up,” Sam says. “A lot of people will slow down when they look up – your aim should be to hold the same time on your laps whether you are looking up or not.
“If it’s a choppy day, make sure you lift up your head at the top of the wave, not in the trough because in big chop there could be a foot difference in height.”
Breathing both sides will help even out your stroke so that you naturally swim straighter, plus it gives you the chance to use more visual cues to keep you on course, as well as the chance to look out for other swimmers or obstacles.
“I breathe to my left most of the time, but being able to breathe bilaterally is a great advantage in choppy waters you want to be able to breathe to the side away from the chop,” Sam says.
Dealing with currents comes with experience, and it should be learnt with an experienced swimmer or coach. Talk to people about the course you are racing – often an area has a predominant current. When possible, go out on a course the day before a race to see what currents are doing.
Like most elite open water swimmers, Sam does the vast bulk of his training in the pool.
“I’d suggest doing all your aerobic training in the pool, but get race practice whenever you can. Use any time in open water to work on your skills – practice changing the length and rhythm of your stroke for the chop, practice your sighting, get used to breathing on the side away from the chop and not having the walls of a pool to push off.
“Try swimming between boat buoys. The benefit is that you will feel the chop one way, then when you turn at the buoy you will have the chop coming from the opposite direction.
Here’s your checklist:
“Wearing a wetsuit provides a great advantage – swim in a pool in a wetsuit and you might drop 2-3 seconds per 100m,” Sam says. “No wetsuit is perfect – you will have some restriction of movement in the shoulders, but that extra buoyancy will bring you that much higher in the water.
“Each wetsuit is different and the same wetsuit will fit differently on each person. So when you buy a wetsuit, go swim in open water for half an hour. Stop and adjust where it sits on your shoulders and pull the suit further up your arms or legs as you need.
“I swim in a 2XU Sleeveless Wetsuit because I like the shoulder mobility, but when I wear a wetsuit with sleeves, I pull the sleeves right up to about 5cm below the elbows. This means that more of the suit is bunched up around the shoulders so I have more movement there. Also, having the sleeves pulled up higher makes the ends tighter on the arms so that water is less likely to get into the suit. That’s just personal preference. I see a lot of triathletes cut off part of the legs of their wetsuit so that they can run out of the water and get them off easier than if the suit went all the way to the ankles.”
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