If you were a bird in the sky overhead a triathlon swim, it would be painful to watch the squirrelly courses swum by the athletes. Their GPS data is proof in the pudding that most age group triathletes struggle to hold a straight line in open water. The unsolved mystery explaining this phenomenon is quite straightforward. Simply, age group triathletes lack navigational skills. This is due to under training the specific skills the open water demands.
The scary truth is that there’s a laundry list of additional open water skills that are also consistently ignored, further raising the learning curve. Unlike the controlled environment of a pool, open water moves dynamically and has variable conditions. This creates the inherent need to master open water specific skills. If you race in a lake or ocean, wouldn’t it seem obligatory, even obvious, to train often in the same environment? Imagine training for a marathon trail race exclusively on the treadmill. Well, it would be akin to only training in a pool to prep for an ocean swim. Simply, triathletes do not train in the open water enough.
For some, proximity to local open water can pose as a challenge, which is understandable. Knowing this, I’ve created some drills/focuses to train open water specific skills in the pool. Tirelessly slogging through lap after mindless lap will be a thing of the past, as we shift our focus to more engaging drills and focuses tailored for open water racing.
Getting from point A to point B, or in some cases also point C,D,E, etc., can seem daunting when surrounded by nothing other than ocean. Most triathletes only put the precise mechanics of sighting into practice while in open water and completely ignore when in the pool. Herein lies the problem. Age grouper’s lack of effective navigation, due to inconsistent practice, is the largest limiter in the open water. Knowing this, make sighting a part of every swim, allowing it to feel second nature in open water.
In the pool, begin by practicing your sighting once or twice each 100yds and gradually progress to sighting at least once each length. If you want to add an element of difficulty, add a small splash of water to the inside of your goggles for a repeat to replicate what it may feel like to during a race.
Pair up with a friend at the pool and take turns swimming 50-yard repeats. Practice your sighting technique on the first 25 to dial it in for your best sighting on the second 25. As you swim back towards your partner at the wall on the second 25, have your partner hold their hands up high, revealing a number of fingers for you to see. This can be challenging to discern how many fingers your partner is showing, requiring precisely focused sighting. If the swimmer gets the number of fingers wrong, repeat and then switch turns.
The water looks so calm from the shore. Once you make your way out through the surf you quickly realize that the small ripples you saw from shore is surface chop that disrupts your tempo and breathing. Navigating through the surf proves to be the most difficult aspect of open water swimming. The goal with dolphin diving is to dive under the movement and turbulence of the waves to best maintain momentum going forward. The few seconds you're under the water passing through a wave can feel like an eternity, making this practice in the pool highly valuable for your comfort and confidence in open water.
Solo or Group Practice
In a shallow 3-4 foot pool, commit the first 12.5 yards of each 50 to dolphining. As you would regularly push off the wall to start, angle your body downward so that your hands reach the bottom of the pool first. In a leapfrog motion, draw your knees and legs towards your chest until your feet reach the bottom of the pool as well. Immediately spring up at an angle, arms in streamline, to surface and at then arch your body overtop of the water and back down towards the floor. The goal is to produce a rhythmic undulation similar to that of the movement of a dolphin.
Finding comfort with your stroke and fitness is exciting and instills a significant degree of confidence. To take it to the next level, it’s requisite to find ways to simulate the often cluttered and chaotic conditions of a race environment. To do this, you must get comfortable with the uncomfortable tight quarters you're likely to find at your next race.
3-4 per Lane
Rather than circle swimming per usual, line up at the wall shoulder to shoulder with two or three friends for fast 50-yard repeats. The primary goal is to maintain focus on your stroke while navigating a tight line in close proximity to other swimmers. Remember, these are your friends, so hold back the aggression, but an accidental bump or two while swimming is functional practice for what you will experience in an open water race.
To practice drafting off of someone’s feet, as well as taking over another swimmer, line up with your friends on the wall. Sending off one at a time just 2-3 seconds apart, swim in a uniform line at a moderate, comfortable pace for 100-yard repeats with generous rest between sets. The swimmer at the end of the train has the job of sprinting to pass on the left until they've reached the front of the snake. This clockwise cycle of passing should be continuous, allowing each swimmer to surge and then settle in at the front, before again being at the back of the train and making the next surge. This drill can be exhausting, but will pay out handsomely when you find yourself drafting in a race.
In Water Start
The cluster of athletes around you treading water before the gun goes off can be reminiscent of a crowded elevator or a can of sardines. To ease the situation always claim your space. To do so it’s most effective to float on your belly in place opposed to treading water upright. This allows you to save energy and avoid getting kicked or punched accidentally. Beyond this, floating in place on your belly allows you to easily transition into freestyle, only having to begin your stroke. To put this into practice, prepare for a set of eight 25-yard sprints. The catch is that you will not be using the wall to push off of but rather floating in place a few feet in front of the wall and starting from your floating position. Lightly kick your feet to maintain lift in your legs, while lightly paddling your hands back and forth to remain in place. Practice holding this positioning for a minute or two to replicate the unpredictability of when the race gun will go off.
The Swim Mechanic, Bryan Mineo, is an open water swim mechanics coach based in Los Angeles. His methodology is uniquely specific to the needs of triathletes. Bryan teaches an 'order of operations' by educating athletes on the cause and effect of their stroke inefficiencies. The Swim Mechanic holds clinics around the country, as well as writes monthly articles on swimming mechanics for several national publications.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.