Immersion in submersion – Preparing for an open water triathlon swim

The swim leg of triathlon can be a unique experience. Some people love it, a lot more dread it, but it is a major part of our sport and it is not going anywhere. Often considered as the uncomfortable portion of many athletes’ race that just needs to be ‘survived’ before the racing really begins, I’ve decided to begin campaigning to have the initial third of a triathlon taken more seriously. The tact I’m employing in this campaign is to look at the ways in which we, as triathletes determined to have the most enjoyable experience in an event, prepare for said event.

Ask a bunch of newbie triathletes or average civilians who have toyed with the idea of trying a tri what aspect of our sport they find most intimidating. If I were to put my bookie hat on and take bets on the most common response to this question, my odds-on favourite would be without a doubt “the open water swim”. Whether it is the uneven water, the lack of vision, lack of air, the splashing and close proximity of others or the notion of unknown creatures lurking below the surface, there is always a general jaw-clenching, lip-retracting, eye-widening reaction when experiences of mass start triathlon swims are shared by fellow athletes. These reactions are not really so surprising. As land-based mammals, we are not naturally drawn to be in completely aquatic environments as a species. We lack gills, dorsal blowholes and webbed digitorum. Being mostly submerged in water is not a condition we are innately prepared for, so it is not surprising that so many triathletes (or would be triathletes) are so turned off by this relatively substantial aspect of the sport. But there are people who are not so turned off by the open water, the splashing masses or the alien sub-marine world – quite a lot actually. These people float, stroke, kick and bubble as comfortably as though they are lying in bed or walking in the park on two feet. For most of this outrageously odd and suspiciously counter-instinctual bunch, there’s one thing they have that the rest do not: exposure.

There are athletes in our sport whose only challenge with the swim in a triathlon is simply swimming as fast as athletes faster than themselves. The key factor that the majority of these athletes possess that others do not is simply that they have done it before. Through exposure, they have been desensitised to the murky waters, the splashing water in their face and the constant, hopefully unintentional harassment from misdirected fellow swimmers. That exposure to a relatively unnatural environment has prepared them for the triathlon swim, arguably as much as swimming hundreds of laps in the pool. Through this exposure, these athletes have been able to develop skills that help them adapt to the environment – skills that they probably don’t even realise they possess.

A competent open water triathlete will be able to increase stroke rate in choppy water, alter kick rate to affect accelerations, lift their head to sight turn buoys without affecting stroke rhythm or body position and to change the timing of their breathing or breathing side to avoid face splashing. From having to do so many times in the past they will be able to position themselves next to another athlete’s hip or behind their feet to maximise the drafting effect and save energy without necessarily thinking about doing so.

As a youngster, I did pool swimming from around seven-years-old. Six times a week, up and down, getting fitter, stronger and faster. Before I took up triathlon at 15 I had thousands of kilometres in my arms.

I could hold my own in the water with my peers… as long as it was in the clear, calm waters of the Maitland King George V Memorial Swimming Baths. If I was in water where the bottom could not be seen with or without goggles or I was not within 12.5 meters from dry land I might as well have been on the moon. Luckily my parents had the foresight to enrol me in nippers (or junior surf lifesaving) and, after many reluctant (on my part) trips to the coast I experienced the exposure I speak of. Pack swimming; buoy sighting, surf and current navigation and the ever-uncomfortable swimming directly after running. This was an unintentional baptism of fire of sorts that, once I became a triathlete, positioned me akin to a duck to water. Most of the races I competed in had 75 very motivated men diving off a pontoon together all trying to get to a single point usually about 100 metres away. This motivation could often become a bit misdirected and some of my fellow competitors would mistake the lake or river we were racing in for a boxing ring.

So how can you expose yourself to the elements of open water triathlon swimming in order to adapt to the challenges it presents? The simple way is to just get in and race more. Make peace that it is going to be uncomfortable and immerse yourself in the submersion. Get whacked, kicked, slapped in the face by waves, dunked, and unintentionally zigzag your way around a body of water until the feeling is normalised. It may take some time, a few slower swim splits and a panic attack or two but you can be conditioned to the discomfort. The key is to expect the unexpected and roll with the punches (pun intended). Having years of experiences of super rough swims and dealing with constant disruption built up a resilience in me and made it easier to redirect my attention back to my own swimming.

If you’re someone who, by merely reading the description of this method, encounters cold sweats, nausea, a spike in heart rate and dilated pupils you will be glad to hear there are gentler and more progressive ways to acclimatise to open water racing. Fortunately, preparation for almost all extreme open water skills can be simulated in the controlled environment of the pool. A few simple exercises that give a similar but watered-down exposure to racing in the deep blue that you could try:

Sighting mid lap – Simply lift your head and look for the wall at the end of the pool. Take the difficulty up a notch by swimming with your eyes closed and only opening them when your head is up and looking ahead.

Goggles off – In a race, it can happen so easily. A stray foot makes contact with your face and the goggles are full of water or worse, completely knocked off. Occasionally swimming part of your regular session without goggles and using the same head-up sighting method above could ease the shock should you have the misfortune of a boot to the snout.

Irregular breathing – Create the “splash in the face” scenario by purposely skipping a breath or breathing in a pattern where you continue to take fewer breaths between stroke. A variation could be taking five strokes off each wall turn before breathing.

On the feet swimming – If you can get some mates around the same swimming ability cut some laps taking turns leading and swimming right behind your training buddies. Go as far as constantly tapping the leader’s feet to reproduce that annoying competitor that you just can’t shake.

All in starts – Get two or three training buddies lined up across a lane and practice a deep-water start. Use this to work out if you’re better off sprinting at the start to find some of your own space, setting out steady to use the draft of others or simply cruising off the start line and finding clear water at the edge of the pack.

Whatever your ability or goals, the triathlon swim need not be a deterrent or a necessary evil that is merely tolerated until the land-based legs are commenced. With a bit of identification of areas that you could improve along with some creative session planning you may be able to shave a few extra minutes off your time, get into T1 a little less stressed and, who knows, you might even begin to enjoy the process of immersion in submersion


Brendan Sexton

As a youngster, Brendan’s life ambition was to be the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. That didn’t quite pan out. But triathlon did. A decade on, he’s still at it.
Follow Brendan
Twitter: @kung_fu_sexton

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