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Article - 10 May 2011

New to Open Water Swimming? Relax, but know this..

Open Water Rookies

Understanding the unique challenges of the open water and preparing for them accordingly, are the keys to ensuring your first event goes swimmingly. Garth Fox explains what you can expect on the big day and how a little inside knowledge can make it a great one. 

Even if swimming were not a regular part of your life, the sheer number of open water challenges now on offer, not only in this country but internationally, could hardly have escaped your attention. Open water swimming is hot stuff, and as such, is also attracting its fair share of celebrities. Ronan Keating and Sir Richard Branson are swimming the Irish Sea later this year for charity and Steve Mcfadden regularly takes time out from playing Phil Mitchell in Eastenders to indulge his open water swimming passion. If you have just taken the leap, made a commitment and sent the entry fee off for your first event, you are not alone. Moments of fear and trepidation will now follow but do not panic, that tingle up the spine you got when you signed up to the race is nothing compared to the exhilaration waiting for you on that distant shore line. With just a little specific preparation and knowledge of the challenges ahead, you will find yourself standing shoulder to neoprened shoulder with all the other rookies and what is more, you will be ready.

The first thing to consider when preparing for your race is to consider the distance involved. Generally speaking most of the events follow the same distances as used in the sport of triathlon, so 750m, 1500m (or one mile), 1900m or 3800m, although there are an increasing number of ultra distance swims appearing on the radar of anything up to 88km. But all these distances, indeed anything over an all-out 50m pool based sprint, require development of your aerobic energy system. If you swim regularly as a matter of course, you will already have basic aerobic conditioning. If not, you need to get to work. Swimming regularly 4-6 times per week for 30 minutes per session is more beneficial than twice a week for an hour at a time. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but first among them is that our aerobic systems adapt best to consistent and moderate stress. Long duration exercise, as in open water swimming, relies on both fat and carbohydrate metabolism to fuel it. The better conditioned your aerobic system becomes, the higher the proportion of fat you are able to use relative to carbohydrate, and this aspect of the training adaptation becomes increasingly important the longer the distance takes for you to complete. Therefore, if you are really new to the sport, spend as much time as you can manage just swimming steadily and consistently. If you feel that you already have a decent base of fitness, then you should make your training more specific to the actual race. In other words, replicate things like the fast start in training, where everyone vies for position over the first 50m. Try throwing 50 strokes at maximum effort into the beginning, middle and end of your training sets. These unsustainable, red lining efforts will develop your anaerobic capacity which is exactly what you need, not only at the start but also to adjust your effort mid race in order to ‘find feet’ and efficiently draft off other swimmers. You should look upon drafting as your friend, and you will learn to love this technique dearly because it really does make covering the distance much easier. The idea is simply to either closely follow the swimmer ahead of you, keeping within 50cm of their feet or to be tucked in 50-100cm to the side of the swimmer and directly behind their hands. Do this, and the water resistance you are trying to swim against is reduced by up to 26%, in other words, swimming at any given speed just got a lot easier! But doing this well takes - you guessed it – practice.  

The ability to pace your overall swim is also something you need to spend time working on. The reason for this is because rookies almost always tend to go out too hard at the beginning. In physiological terms this puts you into oxygen debt and like any debt, it eventually needs repaying and that means slowing right down to recover. Not great when all the other swimmers around you are quite happy to keep making steady progress! An excellent way though to develop this skill, is to swim at different percentages of perceived effort, so for example one session might be sets of 300m whereby you swim the first 100m at 60% of what you feel would be maximum effort, the second 100m at 70% and the third at 80% and repeat for anywhere between 3-10 times depending on the race distance you are preparing for. However, where the training needs of absolute beginners and the most experienced open water swimmers converge, is in spending some time actually training in a wetsuit, preferably at an open water venue. The reason is simple: when swimming front crawl in a wetsuit, the muscles of the shoulder encounter a very slight increase in resistance per stroke due to their neoprene covering. Make no mistake, when multiplied by thousands of strokes, this can be a show stopper if race day is the first that you and suit have got up close and personal.       

The first few times you get down to an actual open water venue for a training session, you will notice a few differences from the pool. For one, the temperature will be lower, maybe as much as 10C lower. Wearing a wetsuit will make all the difference and but for the initial jolt, you will be toasty in minutes. Regular readers of H2OPEN (Issue 1) will be familiar with the idea of acclimatising to colder water and that the real key is to get exposure to it on a regular basis (1-3 times/week). There is a very good physiological reason why you should allocate some training time to conditioning yourself to colder water. The body tries to combat cold stress by sharply increasing oxygen consumption for any given workload. In the same way that running an engine with the choke wide open is not optimal when you are trying to conserve fuel, the same is true of cold stress response. But as is often the case, this is something we can learn to adapt to, but the exposure time needs to be gradual and consistent. The next obvious difference is the lack of visibility you will encounter both below and above water. The absence of a black line on the bottom not only makes swimming in a straight line more difficult, but also because you have nothing to orientate yourself with in space, you may feel a degree of motion sickness. Again, this will improve after 3 or 4 sessions. In order to see where you are going you will need to practice a technique known as ‘sighting’. This is whereby you incorporate a slight lifting of the head so that you eyes are just above the surface of the water, into your normal stroke cycle. It takes a little practice to get to the point where you are not heaving the whole of your head out of the water as this just adds to the energetic cost of swimming and is therefore to be avoided. 

Apart from keeping out the cold, wetsuits also provide buoyancy. This is good news because this allows the body to sit higher in the water which has been shown to decrease hydrodynamic drag in a similar way to drafting. This benefit is magnified still further when swimming in sea water because it is more dense that freshwater and once again promotes that beneficial high body position. Sea, and indeed river swimming, can be daunting to the uninitiated because of the inherent natural movement of the water, as in currents and tides. The experts in these environments tend to be real technicians, and are very adept at discerning water speed and current from eddies and changes in surface movement patterns (see H2OPEN, issue 2). But do not let that put you off because swimming downstream, as in the 2.25 mile Hampton Court river swim in July, can be an absolute pleasure and about the closest you will ever get to the feeling of flying!    

So let's fast forward to the big day and picture yourself suited up, waiting patiently amidst a mass of rubber skinned bodies. Nervous laughter and ‘what in heavens name possessed us?’ banter all around. Of course your nerves are jangling and this is a good thing, it means you are primed and ready to go. Focus on keeping you breathing pattern long and deep and take that thought with you into the water. Mass starts are nothing to fear. Certainly, you will encounter some contact with other swimmers, but the key is to find some space for yourself and keep calm. Remember that most of the swimmers around you will be going off too hard and will slow considerably a few hundred metres into the swim for the physiological reasons we covered earlier. If you do find that you have overdone it early on, remind yourself that the burning feeling in your lungs and muscles will dissipate within minutes of reducing your effort and you will be back on track. Thereafter, concentrate on finding a metronomic rhythm and the distance will fly by. Beware though, that feeling of exhilaration we talked about earlier that comes from completing your first open water race really is addictive. Open water event mania coming to a place near you? You bet.

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