How to Swim To Win in a Triathlon

Expert tips to help you think—and race—like an open-water swimmer
Staff Writer


Jené Shaw—Half the battle of swimming in open water is simply becoming comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. With hundreds of arms flailing around you and unpredictable water conditions, you may never feel right at home. But you can reduce fear by “becoming familiar with discomfort,” says renowned coach Gerry Rodrigues of the Tower 26 aquatics program in Los Angeles. In addition to pool sessions, Rodrigues coaches a popular weekly open-water workout in nearby Santa Monica, California, where hundreds of swimmers (including a rotating roster of high-level pro triathletes) come to sharpen their ocean skills.

“You need to learn how to do things in the pool, but the open water part is the specific skills,” Rodrigues says. “Once you’ve made the decision to become a triathlete, you are no longer someone who swims in a Masters program; you are an open-water swimmer.

Here’s advice from the sport’s top swim experts for building your open-water skillset so that you’re confident and prepared on race day.

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Train the way you race
The first step to building confidence is ensuring that you can actually go your race distance in practice. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be all at once—just make sure you can sustain the total time it will take you to do the swim in the event. If the 1,500-meter (1,640-yard) swim in an Olympic-distance race will take you about 25 minutes, and you can swim 400s in eight minutes, do three 400s with 10–30 seconds rest.

Next, be sure you integrate race-specific efforts into your pool sets. “The biggest mistake triathletes make is that they go swim for 30 minutes straight as their workout,” Rodrigues says. “That’s the worst thing you can do. It has no value once you do it five or six times—you’ve reached the maximum training benefit. You need to introduce some intervals and work different systems.”

The same goes for a Masters practice where you’re just swimming one pace the whole time. “Just easy, social swimming isn’t going to help you be a better swimmer in a race,” says San Diego-based coach Jim Vance of Training Bible Coaching. “Race efforts, practiced regularly, will help you with that.”

Make your efforts reflect how you plan to swim in a race, because nothing works if you haven’t prepared for it. If going out hard is a part of your strategy, practice it in training. Instead of swimming 10×200 at 80 percent effort, do the first 50 or 75 of every 200 all out then roll into your comfortable race effort. If starting out easy and building into your pace is your approach, do 4×400 descending so your last interval is the fastest.

Ideally you can practice in open water once a week for a few months during race season. But if you don’t have access, you can still simulate it in the pool by doing things such as Tarzan Drill (head above the water), swimming with no walls or sighting off an object on the pool deck. Vance suggests wearing your wetsuit during a pool set and doing fast starts with groups to simulate race-day efforts. “If you’re paying to be a part of a swim program, tell them what you want and need so they can provide it,” Vance says. “Hopefully you can get into a group that is willing to do some open-water simulations in the pool, with lane lines pulled out and buoys thrown in. But there are also camps to address this need in training, just like a cycling or base training camp.”

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Plot your course
Drafting is often touted as the high-priority race technique, but navigation is single-handedly the most important open-water skill, Rodrigues says. If you’re swimming 1:40 per 100 yards or 36-plus minutes for a half-Ironman, drafting has almost no value. At that pace, he says, the person in front of you is not very skilled. Instead of looking for feet to sit on, master your own navigation strategy.

Integrate sighting into your stroke
Most athletes can’t sight frequently because it’s clumsy and interrupts their stroke too much. But if you can learn to make it a part of your stroke, you can do it more often and consequently save time and energy. At the 2012 ITU World Triathlon San Diego race, Rodrigues noted that winner Jonathan Brownlee seamlessly sighted every two strokes heading into the finish, and every six strokes while swimming regularly. For most swimmers, six is the magic number, with exceptions for choppy water. Rodrigues advises to never go more than 10 strokes. “I don’t care how straight you think you swim,” he says. “If you’re not swimming 1:10 per 100 in the pool, you ain’t swimming straight.”

Recon the course
Pro Sara McLarty can never take the follow-the-leader approach in the swim because she’s usually the one leading. “Being the first swimmer has always taught me that it is my responsibility to know the course,” she says. She always knows how many buoys there will be, where the turns are, etc. “Preparing before the race even starts is key to navigation.”

Pick out your sighting points
 In theory, aiming for the swim exit should get you to the swim exit. But if currents and visibility are a factor, you should have more than one sighting point. Rodrigues says to think of your sighting strategy as a triangle, with three points of reference: Where you’re going to, where you’re swimming from, and what your lateral distance is to the shore. Choose distinctive tall objects on land instead of relying on small buoys, which will disappear in chop.

RELATED: Open-Water Swimming Workout Bootcamp

Focus on the warm-up
When you arrive race morning, don’t let the logistics of setting up your transition and chatting with teammates take priority over a proper swim warm-up. Beware: Pre-race butterflies and nervous energy can easily be mistaken for a feeling of readiness. Rodrigues’ advice is to ignore the receptors and stick to your warm-up plan. “When you run a 10K, do you show up to the start line five minutes before the race?” he asks. “Hopefully not. The body doesn’t get the opportunity to deliver all your training when you don’t warm up.”

Many triathletes will warm up with a quick jog, but, as Rodrigues points out, running makes the upper body tight and rigid, which does nothing for your swimming. Yes, getting the core warm is a good idea, but spending all of your warm-up time on your legs does a disservice to your swim.

“People are always making sure they’re warmed up on the bike and run and then they throw on their wetsuit and the gun goes off,” McLarty says. “The swim, in my mind, needs to be the thing you warm up for. The swim in the race is the warm-up to the rest of your race.”

Plus, although there isn’t evidence to suggest that a proper warm-up could have prevented any of the recent deaths in triathlon swims, it could help to decrease the likelihood. “The water temperature is cold, your chest gets tight, you’re sprinting with a lot of people around you, you have a high amount of anxiety. I think without warming up or having familiarity, all of those things can add up as a trigger for someone with a pre-disposition,” Rodrigues says. “Prepare the odds to be in your favor and eliminate as many triggers as you can.”

RELATED: Coping With Cold-Water Swimming

Pool Tools
Add these speed- and power-builders to your repertoire.
• Swim a series of 25s with a weighted buoy and/or a band around your ankles to build strength.
• Start sets with vertical kicking. Do 6×50 and start with 15 seconds of hard vertical kicking, with hands above the water. “Becoming a better kicker is a byproduct, but it’s more to do with holding your body properly in the water,” Rodrigues says.
• Incorporate all-out 25s all year. Why? “Because we can,” Rodrigues says. “You can’t lay as much load on the bike and run, but you can repeatedly do hard efforts in swimming.”

RELATED: Open-Water Training In The Pool

How to thrive in any conditions
Big Waves/Surf
• Pay attention to the pattern of the waves ahead of time (typically 3–6 to a set, and 12–18 seconds apart). Ask the lifeguard for patterns.
• If you’re nervous in big waves, wait for the 30–40-second stall after a series and then go.
• To get under a wave, dive down and drive your fingertips into the sand, count 1,001, 1,002 and pop back up.

• If possible, do a practice swim in the water the day before to see how your body reacts to your planned gear.
• If it’s lower than 58 degrees, dip your head in multiple times before the race to rid yourself of an ice-cream headache.
• Warm up your core with a short jog and light band work as close to the race start as possible.
• Do not go out with a big effort at the beginning unless you’ve practiced it frequently (or are a pro).

• Switch your breathing side if necessary.
• Chop from head-on: Learn to roll, bounce and ride into the chop if possible. “It generally hurts weaker swimmers badly as power is needed,” Rodrigues says.
• Chop from behind: Simply ride the offshore waves and allow your body to flow with the water.

• Wear clear goggles (no tint).
• Sight very frequently (every 4–6 strokes).
• „Look for larger markers or landmarks as visual assistance, and use triangle points for reference.
• If you get trapped in a fog bank, stop, then listen for voices from the shore line or an assistance craft and head toward it.

RELATED – Open-Water Swim Series For Triathletes: The Dolphin Dive

Ideal race warm-up
• Depending on the air and water temperature, you may want to do a brief run to heat up the core.
• Do 7–8 minutes of easy swimming, ideally to the first buoy. Stop, take your goggles off and look around. Get comfortable with where the buoys are.
• On the way back to shore, continue easy swimming with a series of easy/progressively hard strokes: 30 strokes easy, 30 strokes moderate effort, 30 easy, 25 moderately hard effort, 30 easy, 20 a little faster, 30 easy, 15 even faster and so on. Continue to shore and get ready to race!

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No warm-up allowed?
Because warm-ups are sometimes not permitted for various logistical reasons, McLarty keeps stretch cords in her race bag. “Being warmed up in the upper body is going to positively affect your swim,” she says. “You can spend 10 minutes onshore with $10 stretch cords tied to a tree doing a sufficient 10–15-minute warm-up that will prepare you to get in the water.”

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