What To Think About When You're Racing

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As a swimmer or triathlete you will be doing technique work in the pool focusing on different areas of your stroke. But what should you think about when you're racing to optimise your performance?

The good news here is that the technique improvements that you've made in training will largely stick when you are racing, leaving you to focus on the effort of swimming fast and also navigating if you are in open water. You will however have a little spare concentration available to you even when racing, so choose one simple thing in your stroke and keep some focus on it.

Here's some ideas of what to focus on:

pick one thing to focus on when you race
- If you feel anxious in open water then simply think about exhaling smoothly into the water and block out every other swimmer and distraction. This will help relax you and keep things nice and manageable.

- If you have a tendency to veer off course then become aware of what your lead hand is doing when you breathe. Let the breathing action take care of itself and turn your focus to keeping your lead hand extending straight in front of you and not crossing over your centre line.

- If you know that you have a tendency to pause and 'overglide' in your stroke then aim to keep your lead hand constantly in motion - entering and extending forwards, lightly catching the water and then pressing it backwards. Remember this should have a lighter feeling than overgliding, like dropping down a gear on the bike and spinning a little faster and easier.

- If you are aware that you have a scissor kick then focus on lightly brushing your big toes together as they pass with a regular tap-tap-tap rhythm. If you're not sure what to focus on in your stroke then this is always a good choice.

- If you have a tendency to lift your head to breathe, focus on keeping your head down when breathing and look very slightly behind you.

For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, enjoy your racing and let us how you go in the comments here! The weather here in Perth is decidedly wintry now with lots of cold rain and storms coming through. We're thinking of you having fun up there!

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How To Sight Correctly In Open Water

Sighting - lifting your eyes out of the water to see where you are going - is a very important skill in open water and triathlon swimming. The mistake most swimmers make is to crane their head high out of the water to try and sight and breathe at the same time. This sinks your legs, adding lots of drag (even in a wetsuit) and ruins your stroke rhythm.

The correct technique is to keep your head much lower, just raising it enough to lift your eyes above the surface of the water:

When do you breathe? Immediately afterwards and to the side. It looks like this:

As you catch the water and pull through with your lead arm, lift your head and look forward. Then immediately rotate to the side to breathe with the stroke, dropping your head back into the water as you rotate. The whole thing is one smooth fluid action and it takes less than a second to complete.

Practise this technique in the pool and get used to timing your head movement. It's normal for it to feel quite mechanical and awkward at first so allow yourself around six sessions and it will start to feel much more natural.

Turn A Fuzzy Picture Into A Clear One

The great thing about this technique is that it creates less downward pressure on the legs and so less drag, there's also very little interruption to your stroke rhythm. The downside is that you don't have very long looking forward, so hold the image of what you saw in your mind and analyse it afterwards. With any sighting technique you won't always get a clear view of what's ahead but that's OK - don't panic! Perform a couple more strokes and sight again and you'll gradually turn a fuzzy picture into a clear one in your mind.

How Often Should You Sight?

Anywhere between every 3 and 12 strokes depending on the conditions and also on the symmetry of your stroke. If you have confidence that you swim straight then you can afford to look forwards less frequently, avoiding the extra effort of lifting your head and the downward pressure on your legs that results.

If you find you veer off course all the time then something as simple as bilateral breathing during your training can significantly improve your stroke symmetry, helping you to swim straighter and faster in open water as a result.

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Actually, There Are Two Ideal Stroke Styles

Most people assume that the Smooth Swim Type is the ideal stroke style. Very tall swimmers like Grant Hackett, Ian Thorpe and Rebecca Addlington epitomise this style - their long strokes setting world records and winning multiple Olympic gold medals.

But, unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. There is another stroke style that can be just as fast: the refined version of The Swinger. This shorter, punchier style of stroke can be incredibly quick, especially when combined with a two beat kick. Laure Manadou, Kate Ziegler, David Davies and Janet Evans used this style of stroke to win gold medals and set world records in the pool. In fact, at the 2007 World Championships, the women's 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle were all won by Swingers - proof that they can dominate in the pool.

Smooths and Swingers sit
together at the top of the tree
The key point to appreciate with these refined Swingers is that although they're using a fast stroke rate, they're not fighting the water. There are no crossovers or scissor kicks to be seen and their body position is very high, reducing drag. They also have great catch mechanics, pressing the water backwards which propels them forwards effectively. In short, they have all the key stroke elements for fast efficient swimming, just as the Smooth style does.

Whilst there are generally more Smooths than Swingers in elite pool swimming, the situation is reversed in open water. Swingers dominate in the great outdoors (including triathlon) because the extra rhythm of the stroke helps punch through disturbed water from other swimmers. A Smooth making the transition from the pool to open water should be very wary of this.

So there are actually two 'top dogs' in swimming stroke technique, not one. Both have their strengths and weaknesses but they are both devastatingly fast and efficient strokes when matched to the right swimmer.

Which Style Suits You?

In a sense you don't have to consciously choose because as you develop your swimming your stroke should naturally evolve one way or the other. Instead of actively chasing a particular stroke style, focus on correcting and refining elements of your stroke technique and you'll gravitate towards the style best suited to you. This happens because different swimmers have different natural buoyancy, strength levels, gender, height and arm reach. Believe it or not personality can play a part in this too - Smooths tend to be quite reserved and considered people while Swingers are normally more extroverted and go getting!

We don't know why but Swingers seem to love bright swimsuits!
If you find that you naturally favour a faster more punchy style with minimal kick, then the Swinger style is for you. Work on refining it by removing any crossovers in your stroke and improving your catch mechanics (see here). Also check you're not using a thumb-first entry into the water on one or both sides, this is a bit of a tendency amongst Swingers.

If your stroke naturally evolves towards the Smooth style then that's great but remember that to perform well in open water you're going to have to commence your catch a little sooner than you might as a pure pool swimmer. This will shorten things just slightly and add more rhythm to your stroke. You can do this without fighting the water but allow yourself some time to develop the modification as it will change the feel and timing of your stroke quite dramatically.

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Avoiding Cold Water Shock

This is the time of year when northern hemisphere swimmers and triathletes are returning to open water venues for training and races. At most locations water temperatures are still pretty chilly and the shock of jumping into water this cold can make you short of breath and anxious when you start swimming. It can also cause panic attacks which are deeply unpleasant and can ruin your race. Here's a quick tip to help overcome this:

Before you get in and swim, splash cold water on your face from the lake, river or sea. Doing this for around ten to fifteen seconds allows your face to cool down to the water's temperature so your body adjusts and the shock passes.

Start swimming soon afterwards and you should find things much more comfortable and you can start swimming properly straight away, exhaling smoothly into the water to settle any remaining nerves. Note that this trick only works with your face, not any other part of your body.

Sounds too simple? Try it - it really does work!

Swim Smooth!

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