Why is my pool swim speed not transferring to openwater?

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“I can maintain 90secs for 100m with a short rest over and over but am struggling to break 40mins for 1900m in Openwater (OW) Why is my pool speed  not transferring?”

This is a question that comes up a lot in lessons and at the lake. Considering we are not turning each 25m/50m, for most in a wetsuit in openwater we should be significantly quicker than in the pool. If you are not swimming further then what could be going wrong? Distance from zig zaggy swimming is the usual culprit but if your watch reports back that you were a fraction over 3.8km for IM or around 1500m for the Standard what else might be slowing you? If we eliminate the obvious, i.e. distance, since just a little meandering could easily add 200-300m and 3:30-6mins easily to your time, then what remains?

We can divide an OW swim whether it is Tri, Otilo, Aquabike, Aquathon or pure swim into various segments – prerace, the water warmup, the start, mid race, end of swim and exit. Whether you head off onto a bike or run or are finishing in the water with your event we can explore some other key areas to see where else we might be able to improve and report back with a faster swim speed from your events.

In the beginning- Dryland and Warmup are key areas to factor into your ability to swim better on race day. Most pool based sessions will have 20-30mins of swimming ahead of any faster work so the stroke is working nicely in terms of technique and the heart rate

has been elevated sensibly. Prior to getting into a pool based session many coaches will encourage some gentle arm swinging to start to prepare the body for the oncoming harder work. This can be useful if you want a longer mainset but only have a 60min window available. On race day, I appreciate there are 1001 things to prepare and get ready but a dryland warmup would really help. This is especially true since time in the water is limited and often cool making ‘warming up’ harder. Often the warmup area is chaotic and full of random swimmers going in all directions making a sustained swim almost impossible. Most arrive on the start line cold, technically deficient compared to a pool swim and with a poorly fitting wetsuit that is about to hinder rather than help.

Wetsuit, big/small

Your wetsuit can be a source of irritation and loss of speed for a variety of reasons. Too small and the material in the arms and legs will pull away from the body fatiguing you as you stretch against it to kick and pull. The thinner shoulder panels will struggle to sit high on the shoulders and be of use if sitting low on the arms as you did not have time to pull it up high enough. There might be problems breathing due to the constrictions around the chest and if too short in the body will leave you cramped and uncomfortable. If the suit is too big and floods you will fatigue carrying extra water around the race course with you. If you can quite easily get your suit on in under a couple of minutes then I would suspect it is too big and you could try something smaller. A surf wetsuit is neither buoyant or warm and should be avoided if you want a faster swim.

A less obvious wetsuit issue is that of it being too buoyant. There will come a time as your swim tech improves you will no longer need your suit to help keep you afloat. Your swim technique will do that job. If you cannot hold the body in a neutral position it is very hard for the legs to assist your rotation and body position since they will spend a lot of time almost above the surface. If the legs and chest are too buoyant then you possibly will sit with an arch through your back that can make swimming faster harder. You will constantly be held in a head up position feeling like you are continually sighting and putting the brakes on.

Confidence to try harder

Are the pool sessions you are swimming preparing you for a harder swim in OW? Are you challenging yourself over race distance so you know not only are you competent at the distance but also to swim it with some speed? Entering swim only events is a great way of testing swim pacing and strategies. After the excitement of the start it is important to calm things down and start to work well with great technique. But not too much! Nothing beats training in openwater to get an idea of pace and how fast you can swim. In a pool session knowing you are going to finish and be done can leave the gulf between cruise pool speed and OW race speed pretty wide. A hard training swim in a lake or similar OW and then hopping onto your bike might provide some feedback to your limits in the swim. Once in a while perform a swim test that replicate’s the distance and gives you chance to see how hard you can attack the swim. For a 1900m event I would use 3×300, 3×200, 3×100 and 2×50 resting 30/20/10/5 throughout. Not enough rest to recover but some to help you keep the pace high. Build each 3 swims so you are constantly working at a good pace.

To calculate a likely IM swim time to help with seeding at certain races but also to get an idea of pushing the pace and seeing if you cope you might try.

4×400 rest 30, 4×300, rest 20, 4×200 rest 10, 2×100 rest 5. By all means alternate pull/swim

Start a watch as you push off into the first 400 and subtract 4:05 at the end to collect a time that will give you an add up 3.8km time. Try it again in a month and push a little harder. Faster? Too fast? HR too high? A little experience will help you gauge the best pace for you.

Start position on the ‘grid.’

You might be surprised how congested the back of an OW start can be. Adding Breaststrokers to the mix makes overtaking very hard. Experience will assist your decision where to start and by no means if not confident am I suggesting you start near the front but you could be giving away minutes if you are looking for reasons why your swim speed is not better in OW. Given some race experience you will be prepared to contemplate a higher start on the grid where a faster start, more options for drafting and being towed along at a faster pace can be taken advantage of. Starting too high up can also lead to issues if the swim is not your strong point. Being driven off course by packs coming by and needing lots of additional sighting might be slowing you as you head up navigate more frequently. Learning to settle into an effective Mid Race Cruise is essential after the excitement of a swim start. Don’t settle too slow and exit off the pace but equally know when to calm down after the excitement of the start and by how much. Try this mainset after a good warm up –

50FC fast, 250 relaxed, rest 30

100FC fast, 200 slightly quicker pace than the previous 250

150FC fast, 150 quicker than the 200 pace

200FC fast, 100 quicker pace then the 150. Rest 30 throughout. No problem to pull on the steadier MRC <mid race cruise.>

Under and Over kicking

A degree of legkick present will assist your swim speed to a point. Too much will leave you fatigued for the bike. No leg kick will leave the arms doing all the work and have you exit probably slower but equally tired as just the arms get overloaded and fatigue the system. A better balance is to have the full body contribute to your swimming speed but keep more muscles working less hard so you arrive fresher for the bike. You need some legs to assist your rotation and help improve your body position. With a wetsuit and only if, you could get away with 0 kick but at some point, your luck will run out and your wetsuit event will become non.

Buoys

How many? I recall a popular race in the UK that had a busy M shape route with an additional dogleg and exit. Lots of sharp turns needing lots of sighting to avoid adding distance adds up in terms of slowing your progress. Compare to a simple U for instance with a simple entrance and exit and you will have less interfering with your speed. When I raced Tri Standard distance competitively I would try to avoid comparing races but it was helpful looking at an average of a few of them to get an idea if the season was going ok. So, if you are comparing a few OW races to your pool speed check that they have not been slow races i.e. complex courses. It is useful to look at some pro times and mid pack times from race to race to get an idea if everyone is slower.

Drafting –too slow and too fast, easily done and both end with slower OW swims. Going too fast and blowing up is unfortunate and equally annoying drafting someone slow who drags you around to a slow time will leave you frustrated. Drafting well is a skill that needs refining for it to help really well. Swimming on someone’s feet is perhaps the best position to sit for the best streamline and most hydrodynamic gains for your £. Having spent part of the year working on your catch position, feel for the water, hand shape, hold on the water and lowering bubble creation you then spend your races sitting in that bubbly kick water avoiding stabbing people’s heels. No wonder it is tricky deciding if your pace is too fast or too slow. I sit on people’s hips to avoid this so I can look for calmer cleaner water and get a more accurate idea of my swim pace. Too fast let them go, not quick enough, drop them as a faster group go by.

Timing

I teach the concept of trying to be the adaptable swimmer. Being able to change tactics and technique as conditions dictate can be helpful. The stroke, especially tempo, as conditions change, can adapt to take advantage of changing weather or water conditions to assist your swim. Lengthening and stretching out the stroke, lowering stroke count against a slight current will slow you dramatically. Speeding your turnover when the flow is with you might not be the best use of economy of effort. Arriving early, watching earlier waves swim if possible, looking for clues as to the conditions can help your swim. Is there any wildlife floating on the water in a river you are about to race in? how fast is it flowing. Are the ducks struggling to stay stationary? Are you going to work harder against a current or work with it, even if it means swimming further to get to your destination more quickly?

The exit and a few other ideas.

Long run to transition being included in your swim split? Are you Struggling to get your wetsuit off? Is it worth fully removing your suit at the water’s edge if there is a long run? At what point did you stop your watch? Don’t rely on the calculation of Time for Swim to be of use to calculate your swim speed. There might not have been a timing mat at the swim exit so adding minutes to your swim which would be unfair to include in any average swim speed calculation.

Finally

If your pool swims are faster than your openwater racing are you comparing like for like and being fair to yourself? There is a vast difference between a 100m FC repeat in a 50m pool with a good turn, sitting on someone’s feet wearing a fast suit or neoprene shorts compared to 100m in a 25m pool, not drafting with 3 slow turns. What you are you comparing when you say Pool speed? There could be as much as 10sec difference between 100m in those two pool lengths as just described. Over 3.8km that is a big difference so keep in mind it might not be as bad as you thought depending on how you are gauging your pool based swims.

Feeling the Water…

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From time to time this subject comes up and coaches give their insights as to how swimmers really have a feel for the water, how they make it feel more solid and less slippery. More on that later but I wanted to focus more on feeling the water. How it moves you, how you move it and how you can be more in tune with it to make you a better swimmer.

While swimming this morning I had a relative novice in the lane with me. Just the two of us in a 50m pool and we were passing at frequent intervals. What struck me was how quiet, smooth and easy it was to swim through the water until I passed the swimmer going in the opposite direction. Suddenly it was like being in the sea. He was pushing a lot of water sideways and forwards. This would have been costing huge amounts of energy and doing nothing to improve his speed as he attempted to shunt his way through the water rather than hide from it. Slipping through and by unnoticed would be the swimmers mentality. You could call us lazy in that to do it any other way would be harder work, This is how swimmers do more of it for longer and faster. In his book, Ian Thorpe, one of the best swim technicians we have seen described how swimming in the public lanes would literally make his skin crawl as the noise, waves and splash would irritate him.

At 45secs into this floswimvideo notice how some of the lanes are separated out with 3lane ropes dividing the swimmers. The perks of being an Olympian! No, we do not all get to train like this and we certainly do not encounter this in open water but to be aware of your pathway through water is a great way to start to think about how to improve your swim technique. Here are some other considerations to help your swim passage and keep it as smooth as possible.

Focus with fewer distractions. Add a snorkel to further reduce distractions. Keep the head still and face down while still trying to look forwards with the eyes. Not turning to breathe is a great way to enhance your concentration. A few strokes, if safe with your eyes closed also has you feel your swim a lot more.

Swimming in silence.Remove your watch for a part or all of the session. Use your other senses, give them a chance to sharpen up. Listen to your swimming, be aware of the bubbles you are creating, the waves and splashing, imagine the times you are doing, the distances travelled.

 

Holding water, bring the thumb in and allow a few mm of space between the fingers. Sculling is a great way to improve your hold on the water and will make the water feel more solid. The more solid the water feels the easier it will be to hold it and pull the body through it as you anchor the vertical hand and forearm onto it. You work all winter on that ideal catch position, setting an early vertical forearm, pivot early at the elbow, create a great hand shape in ideal conditions and then swim on someone’s feet come race season. I prefer to sit higher up on a swimmer’s hip to avoid the disturbed water at their feet. The catch and drafting are two very odd things in racing, not feeling the water will have you swim slow possibly without realising having drafted someone slower with no concept to your own speed.

Hiding from the water. As I swim I hide my hand behind my fingers as they stretch forwards on entry. My arm behind my hand, try to bring my shoulder into my chin hiding any exposed surface area from the top of the shoulder. Rotating the upper body keeps my hips hidden behind the chest and absolutely key the legs should stay hidden behind. Even aim to hide the toes behind the feet! Once you stretch the arm forward then you break streamline but only with the vertical hand and forearm pivoting at the elbow. As the hand and arm deepen more of the arm is exposed but you are travelling forwards over the hand if you have retained your streamline minimising the exposed surface are of the arm.

Drafting and listening, watching, feeling. Ideally in a 50m pool

A simple subset we do all year round to help keep swimmers in tune with their stroke includes – 6x50m in a single lane in pairs. Rest until the last paid touch the wall then the first pair head out again.

In evenly matched pairs, swim side by side.

Maintain even pace for 25m, then the lead out swimmer can go for it.

One person previously assigned is the lead out swimmer.

2nd swimmer waits, watches, listens & feels for a disturbance in the water, Looking for the assigned swimmer to break for the wall.

2ndswimmer tries to win the swim to the wall by observation and avoiding being taken by surprise.

Change sides in the lane so breathing side adds a further complication.

 

Stop thinking about the water as a barrier to be pushed through and start thinking about all the tiny hydrogen and oxygen components that it comprises and how you might better squeeze yourself through them! It should feel less like you are approaching it like a solid wall. If you attack it with power and strength and no thought to streamline then you will fight it and it will fight back.

 

Don’t leave it too Long – end of season training advice

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As the season possibly winds down and your competitions are over then you should absolutely take a break from swim training. Taking a break from training will refresh the mind and body. Allow you to take stock of strengths and weaknesses and areas to work on in the off season. A break from swimming is two weeks, any more and you really feel the impact as you try to come back. 3months of not swimming is 30+ sessions missed. One session swum per week is 6 days of unlearning before you start again. Imagine 3 months. Rhythm, balance and coordination will all be out of alignment. Breathing will be laboured, feel for the water obliterated and that all-important swim fitness component compromised.

When it comes to the bike you have some alternates that will keep you fit and challenged. A spin class, mountain biking, various new terrains, time trialling. Running offers the chance of a treadmill, cross country, fell running, new terrains and pathways. All suitable replacements to your normal running routines but not so different that you would lose form. In fact, running cross country would probably be a great way to build some strength in your running mechanics. Unfortunately, we do not have that luxury in the pool. You cannot replace the water. You can supplement with a VASA dryland swim bench, and it is a great supplement but you cannot replace it. Sorry to say but swimming is the cruel and most demanding of the 3 and wants your utmost attention.

Missing a few months is the worst thing you can do for your swimming performances next year. There is no real substitute unlike the bike and run where there are cross overs. You can swim and learn the other strokes, improve your swim specific dryland strength & conditioning, compete in masters racing, try water polo but when it comes down to it, swimming up and down a 25m or 50m pool is necessary on a regular basis for your endurance, technique & fitness. This research came to light recently –

‘increases in training volume resulted in faster swimming times, and its effect was more pronounced in older swimmers. We concluded that there was a graded positive relationship between yearly increases in training volume and improved swimming performance’

Stephanie S. Lapierre, Brett D. Baker, Hirofumi Tanaka

I would estimate for each session missed you need at least 2 to come back to bring you back up to speed. From those who regularly miss the Autumn and take a lengthy break it is not until March that we see them come back to form.

i.e. these are the results from one of our weekly fitness sessions. Every few months we test over 10mins and see how far swimmers can swim. It is fairly simplistic but proves a reasonable test of technique and fitness. If the courses do as they say then the swimmer should through a process of improved technique and fitness swim further in the 10mins available. We perform this at the start of a fitness course and the end 10 weeks later. Most of the year we see the courses successful i.e. 70% swim further at the end compared to the start. Xmas throws up a small blip but where the Autumn was not swum it takes months to get back to the bigger numbers. Even if the swimmer does ramp up to an improved March or May notice that those numbers while better than the last, they are not as good as their biggest scores in the Spring of 2017.

 

You cannot substitute or cheat steady year-round progress. One of my swimmers works as a teacher and takes full advantage of the 6-week school summer holiday having prepared and planned for a late Spring race. Fair enough, this is the plan, this is how family dictates what is done with the off season but it is very hard getting her back into the water before xmas due to such a long period of time out. The routine has gone and getting up early or finding the time now is a burden.

There are 40+ free sessions on our website available for download and in the blog. I say this as no doubt you might feel Dan has an ulterior motive ie to line his pockets. Honestly, I want you to help yourself avoid the usual January blues when so many struggle back into the water. Try to minimise the time out of the water in the off season. Stay in the pool, try other strokes, a winter challenge – there are many on the SpeedoON platform or how about a Marathon Swims. You could spend a few weeks improving technique or learning to tumble turn. Stimulate the mind with some new challenge but please don’t stay out of the water!