For most first-time triathletes the open water swim can be the most daunting component of a triathlon. With endurance, an understanding of hydrodynamics, and good technique the open water swim can be completed with ease. If you are new to swimming, start earlier rather than later to prepare, completing the swim portion is attainable, even if you have never swam long distances before.
The muscles you use for biking and running are different from the muscles you use for swimming. The way you moderate your oxygen intake with swimming also varies from biking and running. Swimming laps for 3-4 times a week is a good way to build up endurance. Most swim workouts start with a warm up and a cool down, lap combinations with recovery, longer distance swims, and drills are also part of workouts. If you incorporate general strength exercises, include stretch cords for your arm muscles to build strength. Swimming utilizes your arms more than biking and running.
Hydrodynamics is the way in which you move in the water. Practicing your technique helps you streamline your swimming form for greater speed and efficiency. Your pull will be greater than your kick when you swim. Think of your arms as levers, sweeping through the water in a “grab and pull” motion, creating propulsion. To create balance in your center of buoyancy, you will press your chest into the water helping your hips rise up, reducing your drag in the water. Understanding hydrodynamics to polish your technique is as important as endurance on race day. If you take two athletes of similar fitness and endurance level, the athlete who has learned to reduce their drag will be the one who swims faster and with less effort. To achieve your maximum swimming speed you will need to focus on endurance and technique in your workouts.
Technique is very important in mastering the hydrodynamic skills needed to swim. Master swim classes are available through many local recreation programs, these classes help improve form which helps you go faster with less effort. Youtube also features many videos that illustrate swimming technique. You may also want to swim with an experienced friend who can look at your form and offer suggestions. A basic technique to remember is to keep your hips high in the air and your body level in the water. You want to swim with smooth, long strokes while rotating your torso to breath. Learning to breathe bilaterally also helps you to swim more efficiently, instead of always breathing on the same side. You will also need to learn to “sight”. While you’re swimming in open water it’s important to raise your head and spot to make sure you are taking the straightest route possible. You want to aim for 5-7 strokes between each “sight”. Kickboards, hand paddles, and ankle bands are also tools to help technique.
If you take adequate time to build endurance, learn about hydrodynamics, and use those concepts to improve technique, you can be confident in your abilities to complete the swim portion of a triathlon. Stay relaxed and positive, you will conquer that first leg with a split time you can be proud of.