The Open Water Trinity

from the April 2015 US Open Water Swimming Connection newsletter By Karen Reeder

spacer (1K)     In open water swimming, success or failure depends upon 3 areas of preparation.

     1) Training
     2) Tactics
     3) Logistics

     Failure to consider one of these areas can result in a poor swim or DNF (Did Not Finish).

    TRAINING is most easily recognized since this is where swimmers focus a majority of time and effort. It basic terms an athlete must be properly trained to complete the planned open water race distance. A general rule is to complete at between 75% - 100% of your race distance in practice.  For newer swimmers, closer to 100% is advisable.  A majority of training can be accomplished in the pool; however, open water training should not be ignored especially for newcomers to the sport. There a several areas where open water significantly differs from the pool.

   1) Navigation. The open water swimmer must be comfortable sighting forward to look for landmarks or buoys.
   2)  Swimmer must be prepared for the expected temperature difference in open water.  Athletes can train their body to adjust to colder temperatures with practice.
   3) Swimmer must gain experience in “less than glass-like conditions” of the pool. Waves, surf, chop, swells and currents can be a factor.
   4) Swimmers must also be prepared for a race without turns. Not only is a turn “rest” from swimming, but bending at the waist and scrunching up every 25 yards gives the lower back and hips a break from an elongated body position. Swimmers can experience low back pain and hip discomfort in open water if these muscles have note been adequately trained.

    The bottom line when it comes to your training; don’t forget practice in open water! Oceans, rivers and lakes all have their own different characteristics and should be experienced before race day. Do you know what swell feels like when swimming parallel to the beach? In a river, do you know it is better to swim in shallow water against current and deeper water with a current? Have you tested out this principle to see how much difference it can make? What does swimming in 4 inch chop feel like in a lake? Do you feel colder in the water on a windy day? The more open water training sessions completed the better. A variety of open water experiences will help fuel success.

  TACTICS is the plan for or execution of the race. This can vary greatly depending on the length of your swim, from 15 minutes to several hours.

  1) Pacing. The swimmer must have an idea of how they will pace their swim; fast at the beginning for the first 100 – 500 yards, easy out with a fast finish, or something in between. A surge in swimming speed may be required if the swimmer senses that competitors are weakening. Any tactic should be tried and tested in practice. 
  2) Position. A swimmer must decide where to position at the start. Farther back or to the side to avoid the initial furor, or do they possess the speed to get out in front? In swims where packs develop, swimmers must be skilled at drafting behind other swimmers, without constantly touching the feet of swimmer in front and possible earning a kick in return.  What position should a swimmer take within a pack? The center of the pack is a good place to hitch a ride but a poor place to initiate a surge or control another swimmer’s breakaway attempt. If the pack is heading off course, a swimmer must decide whether to follow or head in a different direction. Pack tactic experience are difficult to gain without racing or simulated racing practice in open water. If pack practice is ignored, even experienced pool swimmers may be uncomfortable in their first open water race. 
   3) Setting your course and navigation will be more critical depending on the venues. In some races it is important to know is an incoming tide or outgoing tide in certain sections of the course. An athlete oblivious to this information could end up swimming in an area against more current and losing ground to swimmers moving in shallower water against less current. 
   4) In escorted swims it is important that you and your crew/escort knows the course and understands where you need to swim depending on the conditions. Swimmers need to know the course in case of an unplanned separation from their escort, though it happens in frequently. Once racing Argentina, my escort boat’s motor fell into the water and I was on my own. I had never swum the course before and didn’t know where it went.  Luckily, I was able to see (barely) a swimmer’s boat in front of me and follow it, but “luck” can be good or bad.   Also, swimmers need to plan and practice how far to swim from the boat and their position in relation to the boat. Preferences need to be communicated to the trainer/coach and driver.

   Your tactical plan in open water needs to be flexible as conditions and situations can change quickly. Again, increasing your open water experience is money in the bank for successful execution of your race plan.

   LOGISTICS is the preparation of suits, goggles, and caps as well as drinks/food for longer races.  More fluids/water might be required in warm water events as opposed to cold water where warm drinks might be preferable.

  Logistics includes selection of the suit, wetsuit, caps and goggles for racing. NEVER use new or untested equipment on race day.  In one race that I organized, a swimmer borrowed a friend’s suit for the race without testing it first.  She only swam about 500 yards before signaling for help.   

   Suits need to be tested beforehand to make sure they don’t restrict stroke mechanics and to find out where lube application is needed to prevent chaffing. Are you planning to wear 2 caps to ward off the cold? Practice this first to make sure they aren’t too tight which could cause a headache.

   In shorter events where there are feeding stations, swimmers need to know where the coach will be located on the feeding platform and a strategy for feeding from a crowded pack. Gel packs can be carried in the suit in case of a missed feed or extra fuel.

    Logistics for longer events with an escort need to be more extensive. Extra goggles, caps and suits are a must. Carbohydrate drinks and food must be prepared in advance. Drink types and flavors must be tested in training to ensure they are stomach compatible. If cold water is expected, boiling water can be brought in a thermos and small amounts added to make a “warm feed.” It is rains, white boards for communicating will not work and hand signals should be planned.

   It is a shame when swimmers have miles of training under their belts and then something that could have been prevented causes a disappointing result. Leaky goggles may cause only an annoying discomfort but a drink which causes stomach distress can force a swimmer out of the water. Logistics can make or break your swim!
   The complexity of open water can make the sport difficult for newcomers but better rewards come with greater challenges. When training, tactics and logistics are properly planned and executed; race results will meet expectations.