With a busy work, family and training schedule it pays to maximize your available time and focus on things that will elicit meaningful returns. One of the most valuable things that you can do to cut time off your swim is basic but often overlooked: SWIM THE RACE LINE. If weekly open water workouts teaching hundreds of athletes have taught us anything, it’s that humans were not born with the innate ability to navigate an open water course. We have seen many proficient pool swimmers squiggle all over the course and even get turned around and swim 180 degrees in the wrong direction. When it comes to navigation, athletes seem to fall into one of three categories:
1) The Nascar Driver (blue line in fig. 1). For some silly reason, we have the inclination to view a race course like we are in a car going 200 mph. We tend to round off the course hence we blow through a corner due to the ludicrous speed we are traveling. The fact is that if you are a top pro, you are only going about 3 miles per hour. If you look at a pack of racers and look down the race line between two buoys, you will see 90% of the athletes on the outside of that imaginary race line. The swimmer in the diagram below swam 1.3 miles.
2) The Squiggler (red line in fig. 1). These folks tend to swim outside the race line as well, but move all over the place with small course corrections veering from right to left. The swimmer in the diagram below swam 1.4 miles.
3) The Pro (green line in fig 1). The best and most experienced athletes look at the course as if there was a cable strung from one buoy to the next and try to keep their nose right over that line. This swimmer swam 1.2 miles (ok, nobody’s perfect but we see our best athletes swim within 2% of the race line).
Figure 1 (Ironman Lake Tahoe Course)
We have found that the average middle of the pack athlete swims 10% to 20% over the set distance for a given course. Let’s do the math on that really quick. For a 1.2 mile half IM swim, they are swimming 1.38 miles. So for someone that is a 45 minute swimmer, they will add 6 minutes and 45 seconds to their effort! That is the average mind you, with many athletes adding much more. How much training and technique work will it take you to make up for going from averaging 1:28/ 100 yards to 1:47/ 100 yards? The better bet is to learn to swim the race line. The good news is anyone can learn to navigate in open water by following the tips outlined below:
1) Practice on a course. One of the worst ways to practice is to go out by yourself or with a buddy and swim to the other end of the lake and back with no buoys and very little navigation. Find some buoys out on the water (or bring your own) and do lots of laps on a smaller course. This will force you to hone your navigation skills. Bring a watch and time your laps to make your session 1000X more interesting. We typically set our training course around 300 meters. So in a 3000 meter workout, they are going to do dozens of buoy turns and get lots of feedback regarding their ability to navigate the course.
2) Swim in a pack. Swimming among a pack of bodies is a totally different experience. You will get pushed sideways, sight and see nothing but a foot and add a whole new set of distractions that swimming by yourself can’t replicate. If you are going to race in a pack, you need to practice in a pack.
3) Know thyself. Most people have a tendency to yaw one direction or the other. Those that breath on one side tend to do this more than those that have some kind of bilateral pattern. To figure out which way you tend to wander, swim towards a buoy and go 50 or so strokes without sighting. We have seen people end up at the buoy they started at doing this drill. Once you know which way you tend to veer, adjust your internal compass between sighting strokes to keep yourself swimming straight.
4) Clear the fog. Foggy goggles can lead to a frustrating mess of a swim. The best anti-fog made is also extremely cheap and easy to come by: Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. Head down to your local drug store and buy a trial size bottle, put a extremely tiny drop in each goggle, rub it around and completely flush it out so there are no more suds. They say no more tears…they lied. Be sure to clean it all out and you should have crystal clear vision for your swim.
5) Know the course. If the opportunity presents itself, get out on the course prior to the race. Many race directors set the course a day before, so get out there for your warm-up swim and take a second look as you go around each buoy. Study the angle you need to turn and look for landmarks above and behind the buoy to help you navigate. Remember, almost every race starts in the morning when the sun is low so there is bound to be a leg where you are going to be starring into the sun. Figure out which leg that is and find large fixed objects to keep you on track.
The great news here is that if you are the middle of the packer described above, you can take several minutes off your swim time in a few well designed training sessions. Combine that with a solid progressive training plan and getting your technique dialed and the sky is the limit. Think you can’t get faster in the swim, think again!
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