Under Starter’s Orders

16th September 2015

Your first mass-participation event is always going to be daunting. But, for open water rookies, there’s plenty you can do to ensure it all goes swimmingly. Sports scientist Garth Fox tells you how…

It only takes the click of a mouse to sign up for your first open water swimming event. It seems like such a good idea at the time. The distance seems achievable, the training manageable, and the event a great chance to meet like-minded souls in a healthy outdoor setting. You get a tingle of anticipation up your spine.

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Before long though, as the date of the race approaches, the anticipation turns to trepidation, and the whole undertaking seems unnecessarily stressful. Training is taking over your life, you wake up worrying, and the thought of the swim sends your stomach into fearfilled freefall. You wonder why you ever thought you could do it.

Don’t panic. You can do it. All you need is to remember you are not alone. Everyone starts somewhere – even world champions. With just a little specific preparation and knowledge of the challenges ahead, you will find yourself confidently standing shoulder to neoprene shoulder with all the other rookies, knowing you are ready. And the tingle up the spine you got when you signed up is nothing compared to the exhilaration waiting for you at that finish line.

There are five major areas which you will need to concentrate on to be the best you can be…

1. Build endurance

Consider the distance you will be swimming. Many open water events follow the same distances used in triathlon: so 750m, 1.5km (1mi), 1.9km or 3.8km. In addition, there are an increasing number of ultra-distance swims appearing on the radar – anything from 5km to 88km. All these distances, indeed anything over an all-out 50m pool based sprint, require development of your aerobic energy system.

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If you don’t already swim regularly, you will need to get to work. Swimming regularly, four-to-six 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.

Secondly, 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. This aspect of the training adaptation becomes more important the longer it takes you to complete the distance. Therefore, if you are really new to the sport, you should spend as much time as you can manage just swimming steadily and consistently.

If you already have a decent base of fitness however, then you should make your training more specific to the actual race. In other words, you need to try and replicate conditions.

In a race start, everyone vies for position over the first 50m. Try throwing in 50 strokes at maximum effort into the beginning, middle and end of your training sets. These unsustainable 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 reach a turning buoy first or ‘find feet’ and draft off other swimmers.

2. Pace your race

The ability to pace your overall swim is also something you need to spend time working on. The reason for this is that rookies almost always tend to go out too hard at the beginning. In physiological terms, this puts you into oxygen debt and – unfortunately – like any debt, it needs repaying and that means slowing right down to recover. Not great when all the swimmers you left behind now start swimming over the top of you.

I recommend training based on ‘perceived effort’ to practise pacing skills. For example, you could experiment with sets of 300m where you swim at varying levels of perceived effort, say from 60 to 95 percent, and keep track of your times to cover the distance and how you feel at the end.

3. Get dressed

With wetsuits compulsory for many events now, there’s a good chance you’ll be wearing one in your first race. When swimming frontcrawl in a wetsuit, the muscles of the shoulder encounter a slight increase in resistance per stroke. Make no mistake, when multiplied by thousands of strokes, this can be a show-stopper if race day is the first time that you and your suit have got up close and personal. As we found out in H2Open’s wetsuit issue in April, you need to spend time training in a wetsuit, preferably at an open water venue.

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A wetsuit will keep you warmer, but slipping into open water that’s possibly 10-15˚C cooler than in your local pool can still provoke a panic-inducing jolt to the uninitiated. There is a very good physiological reason why you should allocate training time to conditioning yourself to colder water. The body tries to combat cold stress by sharply increasing oxygen consumption, which isn’t great if you’re about to start a race. But this stress can be avoided by training two or three times per week in open water leading up to your event. As well as keeping out the cold, wetsuits provide buoyancy, which usually means extra speed, but the different body position can feel disconcerting at first: yet another reason to get in a practice.

4. Look where you’re going

Visibility is one of the biggest problems for those heading out of the pool and into a lake or reservoir. The absence of a black line on the bottom not only makes swimming in a straight line more difficult outside than in, it gives some people motion sickness because they have nothing with which to orientate themselves. Turning buoys and other course markers are much harder to find when your eyes are at water level. Walk around the course in advance if possible and identify suitable landmarks behind the buoys you can aim for instead, like trees or coloured houses. The lack of visibility you will encounter both below and above water can be a problem. It’s more difficult to judge speed and, with all that space, you may feel like you’re getting nowhere. These are normal reactions to open water so try not to be alarmed if you experience them. The more you swim in open water, the less they’ll trouble you, so simply get out there as much as possible.

5. Keep calm

Fast forward to the big day. Picture yourself suited up, waiting patiently among a mass of other rubber-skinned bodies, nervous laughter and 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 your 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 – not knowing how to pace themselves – will be going off too hard and will slow considerably a few hundred metres into the swim.

If you find 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 soon be back on track. Thereafter, concentrate on finding a rhythm and the distance will fly by.

There’s one final thing to beware of. That feeling of exhilaration that comes from completing your first open water race really is addictive. Open water event mania coming to a place near you? You bet it will.