Here we are on a very sunny day mid of July and the water temperature is just right to do an open water swim without a wetsuit because you do not have one yet. All the swim training which you have done, tortures drills, swimming against the clock, super slow drills, etc. during the cold winter and the spring in a well heated and chlorinated swimming pool should now be applied. Hmm..!!
Where are the lane ropes and the lane center line and all the other references that gave you a straight swim in a swimming pool? There are no lane ropes or walls that you can easily reach in case something happens, they are all gone.
Nevertheless, you put on your swim goggles, slowly but surely you go into the lake.
Iiiii…!!! You look under water and think, what type of creatures are inviting me into their under water world. Sea grass, mud, algae, and a murky lake with waves are all over me. That’s it, I am out of here. Welcome to the world of open water swim. That could be the first impression for a newcomer and for an experienced one as well when they hop into a new lake. Once again safety first, is there a lifeguard who watches you or a canoe, kayak and a person who escorts you during the swim.Since you are already at the lake and you are convinced to do a lake swim let’s get started.
First, do a smaller loop since we do not have lane ropes you can grab on. You are on your own. Other swimmers may be beside you but they have their own challenge. Just swim and become comfortable with the lake and its odds. Back to the entry side share your lake experience with other swimmers or your coach. The second loop may already be a bit larger. Do not worry about direction, bearings, navigation techniques, etc. only one thing counts, the lake and you.
Once that is done we can start doing some training.
Freshwater without a wetsuit.
Here we are comfortable and well trained over the past winter-spring months and it looks like that everything you have learned in the swimming pool is forgotten once you enter the lake. You may have counted your strokes in 25m swimming pool and you might do 20-25 strokes for 25m. I see swimmers looking up every 4th or 6th stroke, meaning every 4 to 6 m they stop swimming and take the new bearings for 3.8km (Ironman swim distance). That is a lot of looking.
Would anyone of you run 150m, stop, take the bearings, and run for another 150m. Cyclists do not do it either, but open water swimmers.We start up the swim similar we did in the pool. Warm up approx. 300 – 400m freestyle. Yup, distance is now approximately in open water swimming. We have to do the swimming pool drills again if we want to go back to a straight line swim without any reference points except our tree, bush, buoy, etc. for the bearings. We did already the warm-up now is time for drills. Do some metres in neutral side kick on either side for freestyle, follow by straight arm side kick. Take a short rest, refocus, take the bearings; readjust your position in the water. Do six kick; follow by a set of delays before you do the full stroke. This entire set of drills might take place over a distance of approx. 200-300m not more. Swim the rest of the distance and enjoy the beauty of an open lake without boundaries except the shoreline, back to the exit. Do not panic if you loose the bearings. I am coming to this point.
Now you swam the first 1000m. The task of the drills is to distract you from taking the bearings so you can concentrate on the drill.
What about taking the bearings while you swim?Looking up, some tricks? How can we learn it in a swimming pool?
Located on some wall there is usually a swimmer clock. Four coloured pointers. Drill for the pool.
For instance, swim 100m and when you come close to the clock, look for the time at the 50m mark and keep swimming. Do the turn without stopping and remember your swim time at the clock. The faster you can look finding the chosen pointer the faster you can locate landmarks during the open water swim. Look at the clock at the moment when you can see the pointer very clear, do not stop swimming.
Back to the lake.Landmarks, like a distinctive tree has the ability to change its structure while you swim towards it. Sounds silly. Okay, from very far on the other side of the lake that particular tree makes sense to aim for. The closer you get to the tree, the higher you have to look up to see the distinction and very soon the tree looks like every other tree around the shoreline. You lost your navigation tool, the tree, the bearings are gone and you are lost on the lake.When you look for bushes, logs, trees, and other aids that lead you through the lake, look out for things they are close to the waterline. The likelihood that these things change during the swim is not as big but they might get temporally lost due to waves.This is the drill for taking bearings without interrupting your swim.In the meanwhile you swim comfortable 20 – 400m without looking up in a straight line.
I will describe later how to do 400m. Remember the drill straight arm side kick?
That is what we do, instead of looking down to the bottom we lift our head just enough that our eyes peek out of the water, kick-glide-kick-glide….maybe a little bit of sculling with the front arm, and looking straight just above the waterline. Head down again. Repeat this action a couple times with right and left arm. Next drill to remember: six kick
Peek out of the water, kick…glide….kick….glide, got the bushes, head down, catch the water and swim normal, find your rhythm and enjoy the swim. Was easy wasn’t it. On the other hand (for the 400m), while you take the breath on one side during the swim get a glimpse of the shoreline, estimate the distance to the shoreline and that helps you keeping a straight swim line but you have to know the changes of the shoreline (bays, little islands, etc.). You lost the bushes, do not panic…. Do not panic.
First bearing, bushes got lost, swim normal, find your breathe and rhythm, do “four or six kick” and correct the direction very slightly to the left or to the right, give it a second look.
If you do not get the direction by then, do not hesitate, head up, similar like the water polo players, (this action takes a lot of energy from you) get the direction and back to a normal swim rhythm. The faster you do it, the less energy gets taken away from you. Watch out that you do not turn to the left or to the right with your first arm stroke you execute after an almost full swim stop.
Waves on a freshwater lake
These things are short and choppy. Every open water swimmer will have very soon the experience of water in the mouth. Back to the swimming pool. Take all the lane ropes out and swim with a few people back and forth. Very soon the swimming pool will have some choppy waves, keep swimming and deal with the waves. Find your own way to manage your breathing and swim rhythm. In an open lake there are no walls near and far where you can hold on if really something goes wrong. Hey, that is my introduction to learn multi-strokes. You choke, swim on your back, do backstroke double arm, you get air as you please, try to calm down and if everything goes wrong wave your swim cap, meaning you need help.
Here is the reason for swim caps, it is a safety device.Another drill which every triathlete should do is, to learn the breathing pattern of 3-5-7-9 strokes. We may do 4 x 100m swim in a pool and every 25m we change the breathing pattern.
Later on, in the lake you are able to change the breathing pattern depending on the incoming waves. In practice we usually breathe every 2nd stroke and change the side with an odd number.
Nevertheless, learn to breathe on the side where the waves come from. During the race start you may need this skill set.
Another advantage for changing the breathing pattern from the left side to the right side is:For example, you breathe every 2nd stroke on your left side. Sooner or later your left arm becomes tired and therefore your right arm stronger. Guess in which direction you will drift. Changing the pattern gives you an additional feature for staying on a straight swim line. You may change every so 100 or 200m.Or the way some swimmers do in open water 2 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 2 - 3……
Freshwater with a wetsuit
Open water swim in the traditional way is without a wetsuit no matter what (full stop).
Open water swimmers enter the lakes at a temperature of approx. 14 degree, without a wetsuit and they do around 2.5km, 5km, 10km, 25km and more. Why do have triathletes a wetsuit?Simple, after the swim we hop on a bicycle and we need the inner core temperature to stay concentrated on the bike. The wind will cool us down during the bike ride and the core temperature might drop even more. Then there is still the run.
The rule book says
|Category||Swim length||Forbidden||Mandatory||Max. stay in water|
|Elite athletes in TC and ITU Olympic distance||1500m||20°C||14°C||30min.|
|Junior athletes at TC and ITU drafting sprint events||1500m||20°C||14°C||30min.|
|Age group competitors||0 – 1500m||22°C||14°C||1hr 10min.|
|1501m – 3000m||20°C||15°C||1hr 40min.|
|3000m – 4000m||20°C||16°C||2hr 15min.|
|The use of wetsuits will always be recommended for age group athletes. AWAD athletes may be allowed to wear wetsuits regardless of the temperature. (Athletes with a disability)|
Different types of wetsuits are on the market. The most seen wetsuit is a long john with long arm sleeves. The arm stroke is slower because of the rubber around your armpit. We cannot swing the arms in the same way we do it without the wetsuit. Getting comfortable with the second skin we do again a set of well known drills such as straight arm side kick, 6-kick, right-left side one arm only, delay, touch the back of your head, swim with a fist, etc. and very soon we enjoy the swim in a cold lake. Most triathletes enjoy the buoyancy of the wetsuit because they do not have to kick as hard and the gliding distance is longer. When swimming with a wetsuit for little time, it is a different feeling to swim again without a wetsuit.