*** many thanks to Pete Hallatt for this blog post ***

At the swim last Saturday, I was pretty hungover, so I sat out some of the entry/exit sprints for everyone’s wellbeing.  This week I was suffering with man flu so sat out again.  Next week I am all out of excuses and will be back in the water. With that being said I thought I’d continue the tradition of TriDubai giving away freebies, and offer a slight insight into what to do to get the most out of your triathlon swims, and what you can do to get some free speed.  To me, a triathlon swim is vastly different to an open water swim, as I want to get out of the water feeling as fresh and composed as possible.

Whilst watching I was surprised by what I saw in that most people were giving up significant chunks of free speed in the water. These are the same people (generalisation!) that spend a small fortune to get small gains out on the bike e.g. disc wheels, super bike, aero helmet etc. I am convinced many of us could save more time overall in a race by taking advantage of the swim conditions than splashing out all that cash on the bike bling. People generally progress in swimming in 4 steps: technique, endurance, comfort in open water and awareness in open water. And it’s the last one I’d really like to address, as the sea swims which Roy and Didge put on for us all are great to focus on these last two. 

  • Technique work should be done in the pool with a qualified instructor (ask Crissy Harris). There are so many nuances that go into someone’s stroke. I’m not even going to pretend to understand the complexities of it. My front crawl stroke is not pretty, it’s not what a coach would teach you but for me, (in Ed’s words), it’s effective. If you want to check out a quality distance stroke, watch the video of Sun Yang in the 1500m. However, note a triathlon stroke will generally be much shorter, faster turnover (windmill style) and with less kick. Sun really has a powerful kick for a long distance swimmer - if you watch closely, the last 100m is scary.

  • Endurance work is also best done in the pool, a simple set such as 30 x 100m with 10s rest is a great triathlon building set, where you can control the times and aim to even pace it.  I also love sets that have the 400m as a building block e.g. one of my favourites as a marker of my fitness is a 2km pyramid set of 4 x100, 2 x200  and 1x 400m and back down off a set time e.g. I do it all off 1.30/100m when I’m fit but pick the time that suits you and be consistent across the entire set.
  • Comfort in the water is about spending more time in it frankly. I’m lucky, I grew up as a swimmer (breaststroke, butterfly and IM) and progressed to water polo to a pretty high level, swam in the sea all the time and therefore I kind of skip this stage.  However, I do appreciate it can be a big struggle so keep practising and keep coming down to the Saturday swims.  I thought after Abu Dhabi we'd be down in numbers but it seems that numbers keep growing each week and it's great to see so many people there.  
  • Awareness in the water should not just be something the front pack swimmers are concerned with, we can all benefit from it and it will result in real time gains.  Awareness can help a front pack swimmer lose those drafting them by timing a wave right or by putting in small well timed bursts. But it can help all of us come out the water feeling fresher and more confident by using the conditions to our advantage rather than feeling like we are constantly fighting against the conditions. Just because you have your head in the water and have to breathe doesn't mean you can stop thinking.

Wetsuit and bodyglide: Before you even get in the water, make sure your wetsuit is on properly, some wetsuits take 5 or so minutes to get on properly, working your way up over the shoulders. The wetsuit should be pretty tight with no areas where it bags, there are so many brands and sizes to suit everyone.  Prior to this, liberally apply some body glide to shoulders, neck and cuffs/ankles. The cuffs and ankles will help get it off easier whilst shoulders and neck will make the stroke easier and provide less discomfort during the swim. If you have real issues getting the suit off past your ankles, consider cutting an inch or so off the bottom (at your own risk!).

Warm up:  So many good reasons but I’ll take a few. Your wetsuit will take a minute or two to move to its natural place in the water. You can adjust to the conditions. Is there a current, if so where do I want to start to swim to the first buoy. If a beach start, how quickly does the seabed descend, are there any potholes to fall into, how many dolphin dives needed. How are you going to sight? Are there any landmarks that are easier to aim for other than the buoys, always easier to aim for a mountain, tree, mosque, pylon than the buoy itself. What is the sun doing? Am I going to be heading straight back into it? do I need darker goggles? (I always have a black and blue lens with me). What’s the temperature like? If too cold, a quick fix is to put on an extra swim cap. Are there any other ways you can gain a (legal) advantage? - check out this video of Kris Gemmell at the 2012 ITU race in San Diego (he's at the top of the screen at about 20 seconds in), this fella had done his homework, he did the same on the exit too.


Starts: Choose your place wisely at the start line, don't get in the way of those faster than you but make sure you have forwards momentum even if that means starting out wide or a few rows back. Start with a higher turnover stroke to get going, but not balls out (you'll regret it later in the day) and look for some feet to draft off. Get your head up lots to see what groups are forming and where you need to be. If you need to move left/right, best to do it early in the chaos as you'll never get back on later. The higher turnover stroke also gives you a slightly wider arc which protects your position with an increased number of flying elbows. As soon as you have clear water/decent feet to swim off, change to your natural stroke.

Drafting: Unlike cycling, drafting is allowed in the swim during a triathlon. This is estimated to conserve up to 20% of your energy expenditure. Now I'm not saying you'll go 20% faster, though you should be able to hold a faster pace than you're used to, and you will get out the water feeling fresher for the ret of the race, which for me is key. I like to feel I've done a decent pace but feeling like I haven't done much, don't want to burn those matches too early in a race. To draft simply practice swimming directly on someone's feet, as close as possible without touching every stroke (this gets annoying quickly for the guy infront!). Don't get too caught up with one person like Harry Wiltshere in this clip!

The next best place to draft is off the hips of the lead swimmer on the protected side e.g. sheltered from current, waves but at the top of their wake. Practice this at the sessions with your buddy, get used to the feeling of swimming in someone's bubbles and not having to sight constantly. Drafting is most obvious for those doing river swims with the upstream portion e.g. Didge racing in the Potomac in Washington. Picking the person you are going to draft off is key. If there is someone a similar standard to you at TriDubai, start next to them in a race as it'll mean you create a bigger area in the chaotic starts and less people will 'want' to swim over you. 

Sighting takes practice, at the long swim to the rocks on Saturday, people were spread out across a vast area, I’ve highlighted a few swimmers below to give you an idea of the spread:

You have to get your head up regularly and pick something easy to use to sight with. I should also say stationary as well, as obvious as it sounds I've seen people using boats etc to sight with, could be a long day out!  Depending on how confident you are with your swimming in a straight line ability will dictate how often you get your head up.  I generally look up every 8 strokes using a water polo stroke.  It's also important to know your stroke, none of us have perfect strokes and there will be a tendency to drift in one direction due to stroke imperfections, differences in strength, flexibility etc.  If you know you generally drift slightly left, account for that when you are sighting. Don't rely on kayakers or the person you are drafting to go the right way, you can relax a little, but still get your head out to ensure you're heading the right way. Sighting also depends on timing, when there is a swell, there is no point sticking to every 8 strokes, you have to sight when you are on the crest of the wave (sounds stupid, but it takes practice to get it right).

Use the conditions to your advantage, waves, current, whatever it is. Use the Saturday swims to try different things and be confident in the water. 

Waves: Bodysurf them in, check out this old video below from Formula 1 triathlon and see how important it is to surf these waves, you have to look behind you and see them coming, watch the lead swimmer practically stop. Not many triathlons these days are 'allowed' waves as too many athletes come unprepared, but races such as the Los Angeles triathlon are known to have them.

Surfing waves takes practice but it's 10 times quicker and easier than swimming in. On the way out, dive under them, if they're really big, grab onto some sand on the bottom, otherwise, use those dolphin dives. Always sight on the top of waves. On the way to shore, adjust your sighting e.g. last Saturday the waves were pushing people away from the flagpole and towards the Burj, rather than getting out halfway down the beach and running back, it's far quicker and simpler when coming from the big red buoy to aim further left e.g. straight at the mosque and then surf it back in using the conditions to take you straight to the flagpole. Same thing with sea currents, let them do the work and adjust your direction accordingly. If there is a wall, rocks, breakwater at the side, stay further out to sea, the barrier will create a 'washing machine' effect with lots of chop and waves coming from both sides, making it incredibly difficult to keep a solid stroke. Following on from this, adjust your style to conditions, as the wave comes through lengthen the stroke, as it passes and the undercurrent comes, throw in a handful of short strokes to hold your position.

Rivers: Let the river do the hard work. We obviously can't practice here, but there are plenty of races out there in rivers, IM China, IMNY, New York triathlon, Washington, Paris come to mind. At New York, it's downstream, get out into the current as much as possible, at the Oly distance, they reckon driftwood completes the swim leg in approx 23 minutes depending on the tides. Andy Potts, did it in 12.30! Get out as far into the current as you can, stay alert and watch for sighting the exit, concentrate as it will come earlier than you expect! Try not to swallow the water. If the race has upstream and downstream, just adjust it. Fly down the middle of the river on the downstream and try to stick as close to the edges, outside of the current as possible on the upstream, sounds simple, but the lure of taking the more direct line is too much for some.

It's a lot of food for thought, but this is precisely to promote that. Keep thinking, use your head out in the water, make life easier for yourself by using the conditions. Try to pick one or two things that you know you need to concentrate on that would provide you individually with the biggest gains, some of you are already doing most of the above. Just keep the brain engaged and you will learn to make open water swimming much easier, all it takes is a bit of time and practice. Relax and enjoy it. By focusing on several of the points above will also make you feel more comfortable in the water. Win, win.

If you want some help with specific things, just come grab me in the Saturday swims and let me know what you want to work on.

See you all on Saturday.