'=mx + b: Prepare for Triathlon Success

Coach Mike Ricci talking to swimmers in the pool
January 25, 2017

Dave Sheanin


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Here's an opportunity to apply some high school math: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. How does this relate to triathlon? Well, a lot, especially during the swim leg.

Many of us spend countless hours swimming laps in the pool during the winter months, focusing on technique, volume, or intensity. Swimming in a straight line in the pool is relatively straightforward - follow the black line beneath the clear water to the end, then turn around and repeat. However, this doesn't adequately prepare us for navigating the more complex open water environment.

We all have stories about swimming off course or witnessing other athletes doing the same. At a 70.3 distance race a couple of seasons ago, the swim was a simple out-and-back along a buoy line. It was the perfect opportunity to swim a true 1.2 miles. I exited the water in the lead pack with two other competitors and settled into a nice draft in second position. The swimmer ahead of me was undoubtedly faster, but his poor navigation skills caused him to veer off course. By the time we reached the turnaround point, he had deviated so much that the drafting advantage became irrelevant. The other competitor and I opted to swim straight to the turn buoy and back to the beach, leaving the early leader behind. Checking the results later, I discovered he reached T1 about 90 seconds after me. Here was someone who would outswim me in a pool, now having to chase me down on the bike.

So, what can you do now to prepare for the challenges of open water, especially if you can't practice in open water during the winter? Here are some drills and techniques to integrate into your pool swims:

1. **Practice Sighting**: There are two ways to sight - practice both. Remember to continue breathing to the side whenever possible. Lift your head until your goggles are out of the water without taking your whole head out, focusing on the end of the lane. In choppy water, you may need to lift your head completely out.

2. **Check for Stroke Imbalances**: Push off down the center of your lane with your eyes closed. Swim until you reach the far end of the pool or bump into a lane line. Repeat this a few times to identify any stroke imbalances that pull you off course.

3. **Practice Buoy Turns**: Practice u-turns within your lane by turning around at the flags instead of the wall. If possible, practice 90-degree turns in a pool without lane lines.

4. **Swim in Traffic**: Swim with 3 or 4 friends in your lane, rotating positions each time you push off. This simulates swimming in a crowded race.

5. **Drafting**: Swim right on the feet of the swimmer in front of you to practice drafting. You can also swim leapfrog style with multiple friends, taking turns leading for short distances.

6. **Wetsuit Practice**: Consider swimming in your wetsuit during regular pool workouts to get accustomed to its feel and buoyancy.

Integrating these open water skills into your off-season pool swims will give you an advantage come race day. Fast swim splits in triathlon are the result of both speed and good navigation. Don't wait until your first race of the season to practice these skills.

- Coach Dave Sheanin

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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