Pre Long Course Swimming: Get Fixed before you Get Wet

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afternoon swim photo credit: MattJP

One of the big changes for the 2010 Ironman® season is that there are no more official open water sponsored swims in the mornings before the race. Triathletes will be on their own to get in some swimming before the race. On one hand, the swim is really the least important part of your day. It’s really the price of admission to the rest of the race: it’s the shortest leg time-wise, it’s the shortest leg distance-wise. But all that said, if you measure the stress levels associated with the different legs of an Ironman® Triathlon, the swim would probably rank the highest.

Whether you are a great swimmer or not-so-great, there is a lot of anxiety around the swim. The majority of Ironman® athletes learned to swim as adults, and as a result, don’t have significant amount of experience in the water.  Swimming by yourself in a pool is great, but doing so with 2,000 other people around you…not so great.  And whether you have a beach start or your all jammed into the start like at Lake Placid, it’s going to be crowded and your going to get bumped.

There is no real way to train for being pushed or shoved, other than to understand that it’s going to happen.  The number one thing you can do is simply be mentally ready to know that  someone is going to bump you, and your goal is to just let it go. Let it slide. Let it run right off the outside of your wetsuit like that water, and continue focusing on what you can control. The minute you begin to internalize the pressure and anxiety from folks around you is the minute you stop focusing on you swim stroke and you start slowing down. Slowing down means you spend more time with those folks, and you want to get out of the water. There are a couple different things that you can do to prepare for what can happen in the swim.  

First of all, before the gun even goes off, seed yourself according to not only your speed, but also your anxiety level. You’re really concerned about being bumped, but there is no rush to jump into the front of the line. Take your time, go to the back, let everyone go when the gun goes off, and then work your way in.  You’ll still be bumped, but not as badly.

Second, you can be careful with how you swim.  It’s very easy to get drawn into a race with other people and your goal is simply to exude confidence and swim with purpose.  In our world, we ask you to only swim as your ability to maintain form and as such, your going to swim very smoothly and deliberately. In this way you are going to carve out your own space in the water, essentially making your own place to swim. While you want to avoid making any final tweaks to your stroke, you might consider putting your hands out a little wider at the entry. This has the effect of putting out little antennas, little feelers, that other folks who are swimming around you will probably bump into that hand or bump into that arm, and as a result they’ll redirect around you. Most people don’t want to swim over the top of you, so when they make initial contact they’re going to adjust. Put that hand out there as a means of forcing that adjustment to happen and that way you are being proactive by sort of putting up a perimeter that people will go around as they come in contact with you.

The worst that could happen is that you get pushed under water. Since you’re a swimmer and you’re in a wetsuit you’re going to pop back up again. You should strive to remain calm…people are not going to hold you under water for a while. Once you bounce back up again, your goal is to catch your breath and get back to the business of swimming. The more swimming, kicking and splashing you do, the more likely it is that people will go around you instead of mistaking your stationary swim cap for a buoy.

The fifth thing that could potentially happen is someone grabs your leg or ankle. If this happens, don’t start kicking furiously. That’s a great way to get a hamstring or calf cramp. Instead, just keeping pulling with your hands and let your legs go limp. Just let them go dead. If your legs go dead, there is really nothing for them to pull against, there is no tension, and they’re going to let go of you. If you start kicking like that, you are setting the bad karma train in motion. If you kick them, they’re going to kick the next person, and the bad mojo will just go down the line. So, cut it short by just letting your leg go limp and take it easy — no need to fight it.

The sixth potential thing that could happen is a common fear: somebody knocks off your goggles or the goggles fill with water. While not super frequent, it happens enough that you should be ready for it. Some people like to swim with goggles under their swim cap, some folks keep them on top. It’s up to you and what you want to do in terms of comfort (and try it out in your training before you get to race day of course). If your goggles do get dislodged or kicked, don’t worry about it. It’s a very simple deal and it’s actually a drill that we give a lot of our athletes.

This is called “three by threes”, so you’re just going to be swimming freestyle and on one of the strokes when you reach that hand out in the water, you’re just going to reach extra far and roll right over onto your back right into backstroke. It’s a very simple thing to do, it’s just rolling from your tummy to your back. When you complete that roll and now you’re on your back and all you have to do now is keep kicking, keep the bubbles going, and adjust your goggles. Reset them on your face.  Take a couple strokes on your back to get your momentum up again and then roll right over onto your tummy and keep swimming.  The goal here is to continue to moving so you’re not mistaken for a buoy.

While you can’t eliminate race day issues, you can get them under control without even getting wet. Start by understanding that:

  1. Something’s going to happen, and that’s okay.
  2. If / When something does happen, the best thing to do is to approach it calmly and deliberately.
  3. If you get grabbed or kicked, all you have to do is just slow down and go limp, catch your breath.
  4. If your goggles come off, you can fix it very easily with that protocol I gave you. You can roll over on your back.

And your overall goal is to just swim as steadily as you can, as well as you can, the duration of the distance.  Focus on the rest of the race.  Because that’s really where the rubber meets the road.  Don’t get caught up in the swim, and don’t let the swim dictate your day.  Be smart, be smooth, have fun.  Stop that bad karma train if you see it coming, go fast and have fun.

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Coach P

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  • Jeff

    I like the technique described to fix your goggles if they get knocked off or filled with water, all while maintaining momentum. I am going to try this at my next swim day and see how it goes.

  • Jeff

    I like the technique described to fix your goggles if they get knocked off or filled with water, all while maintaining momentum. I am going to try this at my next swim day and see how it goes.

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