Thursday, April 04, 2013

Too Cold To Get In The Open Water? No Problem!

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Your open water skills are just as important as your stroke technique and swim fitness because you can lose 5, 10 or even 20 seconds per 100m swum in a race by swimming off course, missing out on a good draft or suffering a panic or anxiety attack. For some evidence of that, see here and here.

But if you're reading this in Europe you'll be painfully aware that winter is still stubbornly holding off spring, with air temperatures currently hovering at the seasonal norms for December and January. So how do you keep those open water skills sharp during the endless winter? In the pool of course!

Designing A Great Open Water Session In The Pool

The key thing to remember when designing open water sessions is to be creative and introduce a wide variety of challenges. Races throw a huge range of conditions and situations at you and you need to be comfortable adapting to whatever you are presented with.

You should ideally practise these skills with other swimmers in a group once a week in the pool by getting together with some friends or your training squad. If your group is of mixed ability, use a pull buoy or a pair of fins to help the slower swimmers keep up with the fast guys. That's not cheating in this sort of session as it's purely about experiencing and becoming confident swimming close to other swimmers.

Here are some ideas to include in your pool based open water sessions:

Practise starts by treading water at the deep end of the pool and on the shout of 'go!' get up to speed as quickly as you can, using a shorter stroke as you accelerate like a sprinter taking short strides out of the blocks on the running track. This acceleration technique is important for starts but also for getting back up to speed after a tight turn - you can use it to drop other swimmers who are drafting you.

Practise accelerating up to speed quickly and efficiently from a treading water position.
A pull buoy is optional - don't kick at all if you use one to keep the focus on the arm stroke.

Organise yourself into drafting groups, using both arrow head and in-line drafting formations. Swap round the lead swimmer regularly and get as close as you can to the other swimmers without disrupting their stroke. When swimming to the side of another swimmer, experiment with matching your stroke rate to theirs to avoid clashing arms.

Don't get too close to the swimmer in front when in-line
drafting or you will disrupt their stroke (and yours)!

When drafting, get comfortable being close to other swimmers, yes the turbulence will disrupt your stroke rhythm and this can feel off putting at first but don't be tempted to seek out clear water. The benefits of being in this draft zone are huge (saving you up to 38% of your energy expenditure [1]) and by becoming accustomed to it you will be able to swim much faster than you otherwise would. Experiment with a slightly shorter punchier stroke style to be more efficient in the disturbed water and turbulence.

Include short races over 50, 100 and 200m where you are drafting and the lead person is trying to drop the guys behind. The lead swimmer can make this tactical by swimming at a steady pace at first and then surprising those behind by surging unexpectedly to try and drop them. If you're following the lead swimmer stay aware and responsive just as you should be in a real race situation.

When swimming in drafting groups, include the turn at the end of the lane in your swim (if you've got use of multiple lanes duck under the lane rope into the next lane to make it harder). This creates a bit of chaos and forces you to improvise and quickly find the draft zone again - think quickly and don't hesitate or you will lose the draft!

Turning under the lane rope in close proximity to other
swimmers is sure to create some race-simulating chaos!

Whilst swimming alone in the lane, close your eyes except when lifting your head to sight forwards. This gives you useful practise of getting a little disorientated and it really highlights how straight you can swim (or can't swim!) without following the line on the bottom of the pool. Find out more about good sighting technique here.

That's just a short list to give you some ideas but get creative and use the environment and resources available to you to create your own sessions. Coach Nicky Proctor from York Triathlon Club just wrote in and told us about a session she ran with her squad where she divided everyone into teams and they raced to collect coloured balls (taken from the kiddies ball pit) and then dove for shells and sinkers from the pool bottom, all competitively for points. Her swimmers got mini-eggs and chocolate bunnies for prizes (as it was Good Friday). Great idea Nicky!

A Little Sprint Training

As you know, at Swim Smooth we're fans of threshold (e.g. CSS) training for the majority of your distance swimming fitness sessions but open water skills sessions are the perfect opportunity to include some sprint work in your training too. The head to head nature of these sessions is perfect for sprint work and combining two sessions into one like this is very time efficient.

Once A Week

We are lucky with Perth's climate that we're able to swim in the open water all year round but in our squads we still like to practise these skills once a week in the pool. The controlled environment makes it very easy to coordinate the session and give coaching instruction and feedback to swimmers.

We suggest you aim to complete a session like this once a week (in Perth we run it on a Saturday lunch-time) in the pool. It's a lot of fun and you will really notice the benefit to your open water swimming when the water temperatures are warm enough to venture outdoors.

(Incidentally, we've had a spate of shark attacks in WA over the last 18 months so for the moment we're stuck in the pool for the most part too!)

Swim Smooth!

[1] CHATARD, J.-C., and B. WILSON. Drafting Distance in Swimming. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 35, No. 7, pp. 1176–1181, 2003.

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