IS TRAINING IN OPEN WATER ESSENTIAL IN TRIATHLON?

Do you think that swimming in the pool and in open water are two similar activities? Are you scared to get started on a triathlon because of the swim leg? Take some time to read the following section!

M-distance Triathlon in Gérardmer: end of 1,500m swim leg, I came out of the water in third place. Yes, third! Me, a standard runner, quite average swimmer who is used to coming out in the midst of a mass of triathletes. Even my father didn't understand and looked at me, wide-eyed: “What is he doing there already??”

So what happened?? I can only see two possible explanations: either I improved dramatically in just a few weeks, or the others got it wrong. I admit I would have preferred the first option… ;-) but I don't mind the second one either! Indeed, that day all the swimmers who were in front got it wrong (we're talking about fifty or so swimmers..!) at a buoy. They all went left when they should have gone right because they didn't take the time to lift their heads to orient themselves. By the time they realised, turned around and got back in the right direction, I was able to make my own way to the exit as a guest star.

Why am I telling you this? First of all, to de-dramatise the swim leg of the triathlon. Most people fail to take the plunge because of this race. To reassure you, don't ever forget this: the people swimming alongside you are thinking the same as you “I hope I don't get a beating!”. Yes, it's a bit rough but you'll see that it's not that bad. I am also lucky because I am one of those triathletes who like to swim in open water and, on the whole, I do well in the swim leg. And yet I've come from far! Originally a runner, I learnt to swim when I started doing triathlons.

Like many people, I swam breast stroke on my first triathlon because I couldn't breathe properly and, mainly, I don't go very fast in front crawl.

Nowadays I often come out in the top spots during the swim legs with the luxury of beating swimmers who do much better than me during training sessions in the pool.And no I don't cheat by shortening the swimming distance, I don't swim like a maniac every day to improve and I don't take drugs ;-). I have just understood the importance of technique and regularity in swimming and the importance of combining training in the pool with training in open water because the two practices have very different objectives.

1/ SWIMMINGHOW CAN YOU IMPROVE?

An important thing to understand about swimming is: to improve you have to train REGULARLY. If you don't train regularly you will quickly lose the hard-won aptitudes you've acquired during training sessions. Unfortunately I have experienced this on several occasions: weeks of training to improve by a few seconds on the 100m and then lack of time or motivation (counting the tiles on the bottom of the pool has never been my great passion) keeps me away from the pool for 10 to 15 days. And then it's always the same story when I come back: the gliding sensation is gone, my arms hurt and I need 3 or 4 sessions to get back to the level I was at before the little break.

My coaches always said: 1 session a week allows you to maintain your level. 2 sessions a week (working on speed and technique) allows you to improve slightly.You need at least 3 sessions a week to make significant progress in terms of sensations, technique and speed.

As I was not a great swimming fan but I wanted to improve, I opted for a minimum of 2 sessions a week in the pool and added one session in open water in warmer weather (May to October). It isn't overwhelming and my progress was spectacular: I quite quickly went from being a bad swimmer to being a good swimmer. But to get there, I didn't just swim lengths without thinking, trying to cover as much distance as possible. Quite the contrary.To improve in swimming, you have to follow a training plan that combines technique, speed and endurance. And that has to happen in the pool!

2/ SWIMMING IN THE POOL: THE BEST PLACE TO IMPROVE

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1/ ADVANTAGES OF POOL SWIMMING

Swimming in the pool has a few undeniable advantages compared to open water:

- swimming in a stable environment (waves and current are not common in a 25 or 50m pool)

- swimming in water at the right temperature (it is rarely below 26 degrees in public swimming pools, except the day after drainage)

- swimming in clean water (where you can see the bottom)

- swimming in a line of water (which allows you to orient yourself easily without lifting your head)

- reaching an edge every 25 or 50m (for regular recovery periods)

All this allows you to focus on your swimming and technique, particularly as a beginner. And I stress the technical aspect!

 

swimming-pool

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2/ THE IMPORTANCE OF TECHNIQUE IN SWIMMING

Like for running, we too often forget this part in favour of long swim series with boards or pull buoys. But working on your technique at every session is the key to success in swimming. Whether technique represents only part of the training or almost the entire session, only one thing is important: work on it at every session! 

If you are alone, ask for advice!

Then there's the question of whether you're doing the movement properly in the water. It isn't easy to assess when you're swimming alone.For my part, I've always had the chance to swim with a coach at the side of the pool because, as a club member, I choose group training sessions when a coach is always present.The coach is there to correct you and give you some good tips for improving your technique.

However, there are other ways: last year a friend of mine who swam on his own wanted some feedback on his technique work. So I went to the pool with him (even though I don't have a lifeguard or coach diploma) and watched to tell him what he was doing well and not so well. I did this based on what I had learned when I was in the water. I also spent time filming him so that he could see the points he had to improve on. If you don't have a friend who is a swimmer you could always try this with a lifeguard!They are often quite happy to share one or two tips to help people improve ;-)

 

3/ THE IMPORTANCE OF PACE WORK

Clearly, it's not all about technique in swimming.Swimming in the pool is the best place to practise different paces.This pace work will allow you to improve your speed during races. The advantage of the pool is that it is easy to do series and therefore monitor your times. From 25m - to work on max speed, to 800m - to work on endurance - all combinations are possible in the pool.

But as I have already said, being a good swimmer in the pool doesn't necessarily make you a good swimmer in open water! Of course, you won't lose the level (technique and speed) you have acquired during pool sessions but good pool swimmers can easily lose their bearings in open water.

3/ SWIMMING IN OPEN WATER: IN THE END, WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

I think it makes practically all the difference: you are taking away all the advantages of swimming in the pool:

- swimming in the lake or the sea sometimes causes waves and current

- the temperature of the water is like the lottery: it's the luck of the draw and you better take a number between 16 and 24!

NB: if water temperature is <16°C : a suit is mandatory

                   if water temperature is between 16 and 24°C: a suit is allowed

                   if water temperature > 24°C : a suit is prohibited

- you can rarely see the bottom and that's not always reassuring

- there is no water line, you have to look up to orient yourself and that's not easy

-  there is no reassuring edge. Once you're in the middle of the lake, you have to manage on your own

 

open-water-swimming

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1/ WHY TRAIN TO SWIM IN OPEN WATER?

So as not to be completely lost on the day of the triathlon, I strongly encourage you to try open water swimming at the training stage. You can adjust to all these parameters and try a piece of equipment that all triathletes love: the suit! Indeed, you are allowed to swim with a suit in most open water races (except if the water temperature is higher than 24°C), as the main purpose of the wetsuit is to protect you from the cold.

Furthermore, its neoprene (synthetic rubber) composition provides two huge advantages: buoyancy and glide! Bad swimmers become average swimmers, average swimmers become good swimmers and good swimmers... remain good swimmers!

But a wetsuit also changes your swim benchmarks and it is banned in the pool most of the time.So you spend all your time training without a wetsuit in the pool even though you do most of your races with a wetsuit. It doesn't make sense. You must therefore test your wetsuit and only open water sessions will allow you to do that!

For my part, as soon as the weather starts to get warmer, I am lucky enough to be able to swim in open water every week with my club. We have access to the whole lake twice a week for training. And the aim of this session is simple: to get used to all the intricacies of open water swimming, which I can't do in the pool: get used to the water temperature, lift my head to orient myself, practise running beach starts, get used to the buoyancy of the suit, etc.

This means I am not destabilised when it is time for a triathlon! Having practised with my suit in open water, I do pretty well and often better than good pool swimmers (e.g. at the Troyes L-distance triathlon last year I came out 3 minutes (!!) before the swimmer in my club who had always swum faster than me in the pool but who rarely trains in open water).

 

2/ OPEN WATER TRAINING: THE PLEASURE OF FREEDOM

Last but not least, training in the water provides another advantage:freedom! No longer must you count the tiles on the bottom of the water and smell chlorine for hours. No stress from the stopwatch at the side of the pool, chasing after every second. Large open spaces and the pleasure of swimming as you choose: you can stop whenever you like, and swim at the speed and in the direction you want to.

We are clearly getting off the subject of training but doing triathlons is also about enjoyment and being in harmony with nature. Personally, I place a lot of importance on this aspect.And I can assure you that swimming in a lake as calm as a bathtub and taking a break half-way to watch a beautiful sunset on a summer's evening is a highly pleasant experience ;-)

In conclusion, I would say that pool training is inseperable from open water training in triathlon for one simple reason: the objectives are not the same and most importantly, the two practices are very different. Getting used to open water swimming takes time and training in real race conditions from time to time will allow you to get as much enjoyment as possible on D-day.

 

cedric-editor-aptonia

Cédric.

I've been doing triathlons for 15 years. Triathlon is not just a sport, it's a way of life. I am lucky enough to have tried all the different triathlon distances, from XS to L. I am a better runner than swimmer, and I was able to participate in the French championship in D2 then D1 in duathlon with my first club (TRIMOVAL).

I'm going back this year in D2 of the duathlon with my club from Champigny. But most importantly, I fulfilled my number one dream this year: the Ironman® triathlon in Vichy on the 26th of August.

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