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Smart strategies are things that are important but don’t have any real place in the first three categories. These will help you think about swimming and plan your race better. A good swimmer is constantly evaluating, tweaking, and planning.
Thou shalt warm up before the race. Try to time your trip to the Port-a-Potty early enough to allow yourself ten minutes if splashing around in the water before the race starts. Yes, a 1.5km swim is long enough for a warm-up to happen while you’re going, but you don’t want to do that. Your muscles will thank you for getting blood flowing through them before the mad dash of a mass triathlon start. You can shake out the tightness, get a feel for the water temperature, fiddle with your cap and goggles, and pee (everyone else is doing it). A good, short warm-up can make a huge difference in that initial push, and will help you settle in once you get rolling.
Tip #2- Your Kick
There has been only one mention of kicking in this entire overview. The reason for that is simple- You don’t need to be kicking that much most of the time. What are you going to do as soon as you hit the shore? You are going to start cranking on your legs. The water is the only time you get to use your arms, so use them. Not to say you should not kick at all, but it should be steady and light. Freestyle is about 75% pull 25% kick, and I would say triathletes are more like 80/20. A regular kick can fix your body position, but that is not what its purpose is. Looking back at Smooth, the way to a good body position is pressing down on your T-Spot to bring up your hips. Kicking to bring your hips up means you are kicking down. Kicking down means you are using energy in the wrong direction. You want the force going back so that you will move forward. Don’t use your kick as a Smooth crutch.
Flutter kick does not generate from the knee, but from the thigh and glute. The degree of deflection is very small. Too big of a kick ruins your hydrodynamic property and slows you down. You want to remain torpedo-shaped. Your feet shouldn’t be jumping out of that and causing drag.
Keeping these things in mind, you should kick hard at the beginning of the swim (if you are trying to get out ahead of the main pack), then settle in with a regular, propulsive-but-not-hard kick. With about 200m left in the swim start revving your kick back up. This will force blood back into those big muscles, preparing them for the run to T1.
Tip #3- Self-Seeding
Most triathlons do some type of seeding, even it is just separating the men and the women. Big races might divide you up by age groups. Within your own starting group it is important to find a good place to start. Be it a beach or water start, should you be near the front, mid-pack, or in the back? That depends on your skills and your goals. If you aren’t a comfortable swimmer, start in the back. If it’s a beach start, that might mean you let the crazy people go, then wade in with the cautious ones. You won’t be the only one.
Start too far forward and you’ll be an obstacle. You can’t hear other racers cursing at you like you’re a big rig in the fast lane, but they are. Some might go so far as to climb right over you. Start too far to the back and you’ll be the one climbing and cursing. Best to be honest and err on the side of caution. It is better to try and find open water and swim around people than it is to be in the way.
BE AWARE- Any race that isn’t a straight out-and-back will probably have a buoy turn after a few hundred yards. Swim wide. The crush of people trying to cut that corner as closely as possible aren’t going any faster. You might swim a few extra yards, but you’ll stay away from the white water mess right against the floating yellow pyramid (orange sphere?). If there is a turn buoy right after the start there will be a mass sprint for it. Not a confident swimmer? Let them go, hang back. It isn’t worth it and the time saved is negligible.
Tip #4- Drafting
Drafting is illegal in most triathlons. On the bike. In the water though it’s impossible to enforce. Hundreds of bodies all swimming the same direction at the same time equals plenty of chances to slip in on someones feet and go for a ride.
Drafting in the water follows the same principals as drafting on the bike. You tuck in behind someone else and they create a slipstream of water you can follow. They break the slow water and as it flows around them it will flow around you too, meaning the person in front is doing a little more work and you are doing a little less. Some triathlons are so full that you can’t help but draft. You want to be a few inches off your unwitting engine’s feet. NOTE- Touching someone’s feet for 1.5km may result in your getting punched in the face. Nothing is more annoying than tap tap tap tap tap while you are trying to swim. So be there, but give them some space.
Tip #5- Sighting
Open water swimming sometimes means getting lost. There might be a point where you pop your head up, look around, and wonder how you got halfway to Hawaii. A good drill to do during workouts every once in awhile is heads-up swimming. Ocean lifeguards use this a lot. You swim normally, but every five or six strokes pop your head up just a little during your breath and try to look at the same spot on the wall. In a triathlon swim you’re looking for a giant orange or yellow shape. You don’t have to have a clear view, just a fuzzy idea of where you should be going.
Some races are so busy you will barely have to sight at all. Those become a case of I Hope The People I’m Following Aren’t Lost.
Tip #6- Swim Up the Beach
The swim does not end when you can put your feet down. I see athletes all the time get to a point where they can stand, put their feet down, and struggle through 20 yards of hip deep water. You're slowing yourself down and wasting energy. Swim until you're dragging your hands through sand. Then when you stand up the water level will be at your shins. It is much easier and faster to high step over shin-high water then it is to bull through hip-deep water. The biggest danger here is being trod upon by fellow athletes you swim past in those last few yards. But that's not a real issue and the benefit of this small change is huge energy and quickness-wise.
Tip #7- Positive Self-Talk
Don’t get down on yourself during the swim. If you are not a strong swimmer it is too easy to notice how many people are ahead of you and how many more have passed you and how much further there is still to go. If you become mired in those thoughts the swim will become an adventure in pain and self-pity. Once you begin to go down that road off ramps are few and far between. That mindset can follow you right out of the water and it’ll hop onto your bike with you. Stay positive. The best way to do that is constant stroke check-in. Move through your body. How are your hands entering the water? How is your reach? Are you finishing past your hip? High elbow on the recovery? Powerful thrust forward on the reach? Good catch? The more you think about the basics of Smooth the better your swim will go.
Sinking into a rhythm helps too. Use the first three “S”s and repeat them over and over like a mantra. “Smooth, Strong, Sustainable, Smooth, Strong, Sustainable.” Self talk that often helps is to remind yourself to calm down and settle in, especially after something unexpected that might spike your heart rate, like catching a wave in the face or accidentally bumping into another swimmer. “Settle in,” reminds you to, like the British say, “Keep calm and carry on.”
Following the Four “S”s of Smooth, Strong, Sustainable, and Smart will help you become a faster 1.5km triathlon swimmer. Do not expect immediate changes. Many of the drills in the Smooth section do not work overnight. And ignoring the Smooth drills and focusing on the Strong section will not help either. You will just drive bad habits deeper into your muscles. The Major Key to being a better swimmer is technique! Swimming is harder to master than cycling or running. There are so many moving pieces, and each of those pieces has tiny adjustments that can be made. This four part essay was guidelines to a better, faster, more efficient 1.5km swim. If possible, have someone look at your stroke for a more focused evaluation. A good, Smooth pretty stroke will make a world of difference.
One last thing- Enjoy the water. Love the swim. All good things love water. Water holds you up when you’re feeling down and massages your muscles when you’re hurting. Swimming is how we started. It’s the most natural thing in the world. You can’t win a triathlon on the swim, but who cares? You’re swimming!