Open water swimming is quite different to pool swimming, yet in some ways, very similar. A lot of the physiology is the same, just some of the skills required are a little different. The strokes and styles are also quite similar, but there’s an unpredictability in the open that requires a little more flexibility in that stroke. So if you transition into open water swimming, the best thing to do is, well, swim more in the open water. This session was one of those introductions…
The focus of the foundation session was an introduction into some of the required skills specific to OWS, all followed with a short practical implementation. First, we looked at the concept of drafting and swam in and out of drafts, feeling the difference and experiencing the pull. Being able to draft during the swim, particularly in triathlons (not in official OWS races), can save you a lot of energy. Of course, you have to weigh up swimming inside a draft, and potentially in the middle of a pack, versus swimming relatively peacefully, albeit harder, on the edges of that same pack.
Next, we looked at turning buoys, a skill not often practised at all. Indeed, it’s quite difficult to do try out in a pool. Of all the skills, this one is particularly important for less experienced swimmers since getting comfortable in a bunch, on a turn, with all the punches, splashes and kicks around you is paramount to surviving the swim. I have seen a number of athletes train half a year (or more) for a race, only to quit at the first buoy because it was “too hectic”.
Of course, finding the buoy to begin with is pretty useful, so we went through a couple of drills in sighting. Sighting off landmarks, other swimmers and buoys is one thing, but none of that helps if you cannot swim in a relatively straight line without a blackline on the bottom to guide you. Of all drills, swimming with closed eyes is definitely one of my favourite, read challenging. It can be quite disorientating but it certainly forces a focus on awareness once you’re over the initial panic. And OWS demands a lot of awareness on the environment around you, all the while trying to focus on what your body is doing with each stroke.
To wrap it up, we put it all together with a free-for-all bunch swim. This simulates an OWS race or triathlon start which is truly a form of chaos. Being comfortable inside the chaos takes practice and being comfortable with a mouthful of water, when what you really needed was air, or an eyeful of fist, when what you really wanted was to see, is part and parcel of accepting and managing your risk during the swim.
This basic foundation of skills, repeated in practice at every opportunity will help build confidence and ability in the water, turning a survival swim into a strong swim. Of course, skills alone won’t finish the race- you still need the hard yards! Happy swimming.