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June 2018

Why is my Pool Swim Speed Not Translating to Openwater?

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“I can maintain 90secs for a 100m FC swim with a short rest over and over in the pool but am struggling to break 40mins for 1900m in Openwater (OW) What is happening?”

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 previous 250

150FC fast, 150 quicker than the 200 pace

200FC fast, 100 quicker pace then the 100. 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 waters 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.

Linking Swim Drills

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I have been working on the idea of combining swim drills of late. A few well known coaches refer to improving the timing and coordination between the arms and legs as coupling. This concept is key to create a fluid full stroke but I feel that when two drills are linked/coupled together they can have a remarkably improved effect on a swimmers full stroke. The idea is that two areas working together enhance or restrict a movement so that the sum then generates a better full stroke FC when the drills end. The usual process is to take a movement off the wall for 5-10m and then build on it with a separate but linked movement to half way of a 25m pool. The swimmer then finishes the length on fast full stroke as the drills end and the heightened or enhanced stroke is unleashed!
I wrote a while back about hybrid drills but this is different. Hybrid drills integrate two drills to improve or limit a bad habit. Adding a shark fin movement in-between a single arm movement will encourage you to complete your rotation. Coupling two drills together in isolation is slightly different.
During a lesson this week we combined 5m off the wall, ‘Arms folded on top of the head, Legs only.’ This was to wake up the legs which flowed into 5m of fists clenched to build the leg momentum further and introduce a faster turnover from the arms slipping. These two movements combined nicely to leave the last half length strong and high in the water. My swimmer tried 4x25m as a subset, rest 10 with a strong final half length. Two rounds with fins then two without.
Others….
FISTS w Catchup is a nice variation in its own right but first add 10m fins pointed down with normal hands to offset the fists clenched position and encourage more from the arms. Initially you are working hard to pull with the hands and forearms to offset the dragging legs. The legs are then returned but the hands are taken away to heighten the use of the forearm. When the legs and arms are ‘returned’ for the full stroke the legs feel higher, more involved and we feel we can now hold more water.
Legs crossed 5m off the wall will speed the arms into fists clenched for 5m which will wake the legs and continue the momentum of the fast arms.
Legs crossed to stifle the boys rotation as kick and hips will be compromised for 5m into  Torpedo for 5m off the wall to promote your rotation and wake up the legs  to enhance them when you commence full stroke for the final half length.
10Kick Catch Up to slow the arms, improve arm accuracy and wake up the legs into Fists clenched and legs crossed to speed up the arms again beyond normal turnover. Introducing full stroke for the final half of the length will maintain the early accuracy at the faster pace.
Fists Clenched with a pull buoy to engage the forearm more while the body works on improving its compromised body position with the float in the harder position. After 5m open the hands to build on this position and then at halfway let the float go to enhance the body position further with the leg kick.
There are lots of variations to implement, as a general rule the harder drill should be placed first so you can utilise the push off from the wall and assist with some momentum. The second drill should build or enhance the compromised position and help you flow into the full stroke.

SWIM TECHNIQUE- Thumbs In, out, in, out, in, out you shake em all about…

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A question I get asked a lot relating to swim technique is whether to swim with thumbs in or out when pulling. I looked into this area of the stroke a few years ago. In particular finger spacing and how finally the sports scientists had caught up and told us that an ideal spacing between the fingers was 3mm. Most elite swimmers have this gap as it improves the size of the usable surface area of the hand and provides a larger, firmer anchor to launch you forwards.

I shifted to this hand shape a few years ago and took 1 stroke off my 25m stroke count feeling less slipping, a firmer hold and a bigger paddle to pull myself forwards with. It was significant. During lectures about the Thumb position when asked due to the lack of research and how so many Elite swimmers have done well with either the thumb in or out I glossed over it and offered that both were ok. I was not going to unteach one over the other or introduce the other as being better! Many great swimmers have done well with both. I continued with my thumb out not actually investigating whether there would be some differences. What is interesting from a little research is how the positioning varies at different stages of the pulling phase.

So this is the issue when it comes to swimming, all we have is to look at the fast guys and watch what they do. Often we forget to ask could they be quicker? Swimming is interesting in that it is incredibly hard to measure in terms of bio mechanics. There are so many fluctuations and deviations with each repeated movement. Unlike a pedal going around in a circle our arms do circle but with so many shifts & deviations from stroke to stroke.

Nathan Adrian, IN at the front, OUT at the back but does fluctuate.

Katie Ledecky – seemed IN throughout. Not ideal footage but I found this to suggest a late OUT right at the back of the stroke!

Ricky Berens, OUT throughout.

Ian Thorpe– predominantly IN at the front and OUT at the back. Interesting variation which was reproduced repeatedly.

Just because some Olympians do it a certain way should not stop us from trying the opposite of our usual. When I tried to close down my thumb space my hold and balance improved. Previously I was a little wide and too much S pull. If you think about this logically it makes sense that to maximise the largest surface area and not allow any water to slip through the thumb should be in.

Previous Thumb Out                                Thumb Now In

 

 

Self Discover. Watch, learn, replicate but test and measure, see which is better for you. Some of the subtler, smaller movements might at first seem inconsequential but another stroke per 25 is good free easy gains. It will be pretty easy to get some measurements and decide which is better for you