Swimming in open water can be intimidating and seem very different from swimming in a pool. By practicing and preparing for these differences, all your hard work in the pool will translate into a successful and enjoyable open water swim. We’re going to look at two parts of open water today: the start and finish.
Let’s dive right in and begin with the start of the race. There are three types of starts: Run-in, Deep-Water, or Pontoon. A pontoon start is similar to a pool start. Like diving from the pool deck or diving blocks, you will simply dive off the pontoon. You can prepare for race day by diving in from the side of the pool. Practice diving with a tight streamline position by squeezing your arms into the side of your head while tucking your chin slightly to help ensure your goggles will stay on your eyes and not fill up with water. Remember to practice with the goggles you plan to use on race day. A deep water start is very different from pontoon starts. When starting in deep water, you will generally swim out to the starting point. You will be treading water until the gun goes off. When they give you a countdown of 10 seconds or less change your position to a horizontal one. Essentially you want to be floating on top of the water, sculling with your arms, and treading/kicking with your legs. Once the gun sounds, rev up your kick and you’ll be ready to take off. You can practice this by doing a set of 25s in the pool where you start away from the wall in the horizontal floating position. Make your next swim workout exciting by perfecting your pontoon and deep water starts.
One of the most common and challenging starts is the run-in. With a multiple loop course, you may find yourself doing a run-in on the second lap. This is the type of start that you will want to practice a few times either the day before the race or race morning to familiarize yourself with the course specific conditions. Is there suddenly a sharp drop off? Does the water depth gradually increase? Analyze this out by walking out at the starting point and exploring the water depth. If you find a sharp drop-off point, you’ll want to count your steps from the start of the water to this point. At the start of the race, you will run ‘x’ amount of steps and then make and an in water dive to start swimming. If the water gradually gets deeper, you’ll run into the water keeping your lower legs and knees high. This can be accomplished by either doing high knee steps or swinging your lower legs out to the side. Based on the height of an average person, you’ll want to run out until you are mid-thigh deep and then do a few dolphin dives. To perform a dolphin dive, you will dive forward and downward (going more forward than downward!). When your hands hit the bottom, tuck you feet in to bring them to the bottom. Then jump off and push forward into another dive. Usually it will only take 2-3 of these to get into deeper water where it will be more efficient to start swimming. You can practice dolphin diving by doing hit-the-bottom-butterfly in the pool. The concept is basically the same: take a butterfly stroke to simulate a dive and glide downwards towards the bottom of the pool, when your hands hit tuck you feet under you and when they touch the bottom, jump off into another butterfly stroke. This is usually best done at depths up to 5 feet. Way to go, you have now successfully started your race!
Now that you are out in the open water, it is time to swim! A lot of times, people will start to feel anxious right after the start. Many times this is simply because they have forgotten to breath! Be sure to stay relaxed and focus on your breathing. I like to concentrate on my breathing for the first 30 strokes. This ensures that I stay calm and keep my pace under control. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths after the start and then you can be on your way to swimming like a fish.
Your starting position will have a huge impact on your open water swimming experience. If you know you are a strong swimmer try to position yourself in the front where you will have a direct line to the first buoy. If you are a novice swimmer (swimming will soon be your strength too!), you will have a natural tendency to want to start towards the front with the idea that you can shorten the swim a little bit. However, the front and middle of the pack may end up being a little physical. With this many people in a controlled location, other athletes may end up swimming over, under, or on top of you. To avoid this traffic, try to position yourself towards the back or wait a few seconds after the gun goes off to actually start moving forward. By doing so, you will have a smooth start and be in control of your swim.
Okay, so you are coming to the end of your swim and it is time to exit the water and enter the transition area. Just like you checked the water entrance, you’ll want to scope out the water depth at the exit as well. Before the race starts have an exit plan in mind: swim in, swim and run in, or swim-dolphin dive-run in. You’ll want to swim all the way in if there is a pontoon or platform you exit onto. Sometimes this requires going up steps or a ramp. With this type of exit you will swim until you reach the stairs or platform, climb up, and then make your way to transition. With a beach exit you will swim in until you can almost touch the bottom with your outstretched hand. If you can reach the bottom, then you stand up and run or if there is still a gradual slope you can dolphin dive. On the run out you also want to have as much of your leg out of the water as possible by high-stepping or swinging your legs out to the side. Congratulations, you are now officially done with your swim and it’s time to hit the transition area and hop on your bike!