1. Head’s Up to the Horizon
You’ll find that in a morning race, the race directors have nefariously plotted to have you swimming directly into the bright 8am morning sun, and sighting off the lovely, sun-colored, orange buoy – which will be impossible to see until about 11am. So before the race start, while you’re in the water warming up, look at the horizon directly above the farthest buoy out. Most of the time, there should be either a tree or mountain line that is distinguishable. While warming up, practice swimming towards and sighting off a mark on the horizon that lines up with your target buoy. For instance, 4 hills are in the distance, and the “groove” between the 2nd and 3rd hill lines up to the buoy. Try it out – you’ll find you spend less energy sighting, swim in a straighter line, and feel less mental frustration during the race.
2. Find Your Rhythm
During the weeks leading up to the race, decide on a sighting and stroke “rhythm” that works perfectly. For instance, in a sprint triathlon, I take 3 right arm strokes, breathe and sight, 2 strokes to change sides, 3 left arm strokes, breathe and sight, 2 strokes to change sides, then repeat. In an Olympic, I slow turnover a bit, and take 2 strokes, breathe, 1 stroke, breathe and sight, then 2 strokes and switch sides. This accomplishes two important objectives: 1) pacing – by counting and using rhythm in your stroke, you’re less likely to lose focus and speed as the race progresses; 2) mental consistency – by racing with the same sighting and stroking patterns that you practiced with, you’ll feel more comfortable during the race. When you become fatigued, it’s something you can fall back on to get your rhythm. So start practicing your pattern.
3. Get a Pre-Race Burn
Don’t wait until the first hectic 50 meters of the race for you body to get short of breath and experience the intense burning sensation. This is the manifestation of blood acidosis, the build-up of hydrogen ions and CO2 in your body. Instead, increase blood flow, acid buffering capabilities, and lung capacity by including several 20-30 second race pace and over race pace efforts during your warm-up. Finish these efforts as close as possible to race start time. Don’t cut the time short on these efforts – you must get up to at least 20-30 seconds to build up lactate. At the same time, making these efforts too long begins to deplete glycogen stores, so don’t extend the time.
4. Find a Current
No, I don’t mean during the race. Unless you’re in a downriver or upriver swim, which is pretty rare in a race, the current won’t be a significant consideration. However, in your training, the current can be a great training tool for pacing. Make sure you choose a river with a weak to moderate current, and preferably a beach that has a lifeguard. Hop in, and swim against the current, attempting to match the speed of the river so that you barely move up or down river. In the right current, this is a great recovery or endurance swim, and you can throw some force efforts in by swimming hard and attempting to move against the current, with downriver recovery efforts (a perfect 2:1 work/rest ratio interval workout!). It’s basically like having an Endless Pool without having to make the investment.
5. Don’t Dance
People like to move when they swim. Unfortunately, not all this movement is forward. Instead, the hips zig-zag from side to side, the arms reach far across the midline of the head, the legs move far apart, and the head comes *way* out of the water. This gets even more exaggerated during the race, when you lose you cool and just try to swim “hard”. Anytime you feel this occuring during the race, use the four S’s approach: Swim Silent, Smooth and Subtle. Avoid unnecessary splashes, image yourself as a streamlined unit gliding through the water, and try to make your sighting and breathing as subtle or unnoticed as possible. I perform open water swim coaching for local athletes, and analyze swim patterns with videotaped analysis of non-local athletes. Drop me a line at email@example.com if you want coaching, and I’ll lay down the options for you.
Until next time, train smart