Want to curb your fears while getting faster in the swim? Here are five “what not to do’s” for the first leg of your next race.
by Marni Sumbal
For many triathletes, regardless of experience level, swimming is often the most repetitive part of training and the most dreaded activity come race day. But as anyone who’s ever had a race turned into a duathlon due to weather can tell you, a triathlon isn’t a triathlon without swimming.
Depending on your level, you face one of two main adversaries when it comes to the swim leg of a triathlon: anxiety or lack of speed. For the first group, signing up for a race is the first step. Next it’s time to embrace your fears and gain confidence in the open water as you become a well-rounded triathlete. For the second, years and years of swimming may have left you at a plateau in races, and you’re looking for that extra edge.
Take on your own personal swim demon by memorizing—and then undoing—the following common open-water bad habits.
Lack of experience
Practice makes perfect. Your body will be less tense and anxious on race day if you’ve integrated open water swimming into your training prior to race day.
→Newbie: When you train in open water, focus on time spent in the water, not on your pace. Don’t overexert yourself by planning vigorous bike and run training on the same day.
→Seasoned swimmer: Don’t forget to practice entering the water similarly to race day (i.e. water or land start), and exiting the water and practicing your swim-to-bike transition.
Not warming up
A warm-up prepares your body physically and mentally for the race, decreases your risk for injury or illness, and prepares your body for the upcoming intentional racing stress by increasing circulation (oxygen-rich blood) to the muscles. Cold muscles do not respond well to rapid movement. If you cannot warm-up in open water on race day, do a light jog to get the blood flowing.
→Newbie: It may seem counterintuitive, but engaging in light activity even before a full-day IRONMAN can only serve you well in the swim. Warm up in the water before a race whenever possible, and if not, try doing some arm circles and gentle shoulder rotations in the 10-15 minutes before the race.
→Seasoned swimmer: If you’ve hit a plateau, try using a different type of warm up, or longer warm up, than you have in the past. Swim strength cords can easily be thrown into your transition bag if you find that a more vigorous warm up benefits you.
Too much sighting
To sight properly while swimming, gently lift the head to the front as you are about to breathe. Be mindful that the cost of sighting is a drop in the hips and possibly the front arm as well. Count your strokes in the pool for 25 and 50 yards and try to stay between that number when you practice sighting. Don’t fear that you will get off course every three strokes. To avoid crossing over the midline with each pull (which can leads to swimming off course), remind yourself to enter your hands at 10 and 2.
→Newbie: Practice sighting off a water bottle at the end of the lane when you swim in the pool. (See Pro Matt Lieto’s 5 Tips for Swim Sighting.)
→Seasoned swimmer: Re-think your sighting strategy and frequency, and get a friend or coach to videotape you sighting in the pool to double-check your form.
Swallowing water or air
As basic as it sounds, you have to practice swimming with a closed mouth while your face is in the water. The only time that your mouth should be open is as you slowly exhale in the water before turning your head to inhale fresh air. A side effect of swallowing water or air is an upset tummy. If you experience diarrhea, bloating, a sloshy stomach or gas during a race, pushing hard and continuing to eat and drink may worsen your symptoms. Your best strategy is to simply slow down, keep an eye on the closest port-a-potty and stay calm as you wait for the symptoms to pass.
→Newbie: Practice kick-on-side drills to get more comfortable breathing on both sides, as well as practicing bilateral breathing.
→Seasoned swimmer: Again, if you’ve noticed this problem, get a friend or coach to videotape you in the pool to double-check your form.
Not feeling comfortable with your gear
If you are comfortable with your goggles, swim cap and swimwear in the pool, there is a good chance you will feel comfortable in open water. Tight or foggy goggles, an ill-fitting wetsuit and chafing can make an already anxiety-provoking experience even worse, especially if you’re trying to focus on form, sighting, drafting, and pacing. There are enough elements out of your control on race day; avoid trying new gear on race day.
→Newbie: Hit the pool and the open water (at the time of day of your race) at least once before race day in the full gear you’re planning on using. This is the perfect chance to make any last-minute changes. You might find that you need goggles with a different tint, depending on the angle of the sun, or more body glide in certain areas.
→Seasoned swimmer: More experienced triathletes seldom have issues feeling comfortable with their gear, but every once in awhile it can be good to try something new just to see if you’ve hit a gear rut. Who knows, a different style of goggle or different brand of body glide might be just the thing to make you feel more positive about your swim.
Marni Sumbal is a top age-group triathlete, coach, and nutritionist. Visit her website at trimarnicoach.com.