Do you enjoy triathlons? Are you a performance addict, and is competition seductive to you? And perhaps most importantly, are you smart?
If you answered YES to these questions, then you owe it to yourself to think carefully about one more: What is your personal temperature limit in triathlons or open water swim races? That is, at what water temperature would you make the decision NOT to participate? Mine were 58 degrees on the lower end and 84 on the upper spectrum, non-wetsuit, both learned from bad experiences. Eventually I raised the lower temp to 60: I simply did not enjoy cold temperatures.
Deaths in open water during a triathlon have become disturbingly common. Particularly troubling is that, given the decisions by organizers not to cancel events despite potentially lethal temperatures, such deaths appear now to have become regarded as somehow acceptable. Just this past weekend, yet another triathlete passed away in the Alcatraz triathlon. The official report is that the water temperature was 51 degrees; ominous enough. However, credible unofficial sources are saying it was more like 49. And it’s not just the cold: open water swimming lost one of its brightest stars when champion Fran Crippen succumbed during a 10k race in 89 degree water.
Should upper and lower racing temperature limits, or ‘collars’ be set? And if so, who is responsible for setting those collars: the National Governing Bodies (NGBs), the race directors, or the participants? Who is the most responsible, really? We can debate the role of all involved, but here is what YOU, the participant, need to do:
• Receive medical clearance for training and racing.
• Hire a coach or get on a reputable and proven training plan.
• Spend ample time preparing for the distance.
• Spend ample time preparing for all types of racing conditions: cold water, warm water, currents, winds, low visibility, blinding reflection and sun, choppy waters, big surf conditions, rip tides.
• Acquire the skills of proper and frequent navigation.
• Become very familiar with swimming in very close quarters to others.
• Familiarize and prepare yourself for the discomfort from contact at race starts, buoy turns and swim “claustrophobia”.
• Practice in open water with a group, simulating race-like conditions.
• Have a proper-fitting wetsuit that is tested and familiar prior to racing.
• Have a real swim race plan, not simply “I just want to get to my bike”.
• Warm up properly.
• Start to the side of your group.
• Only swim fast at the beginning if it was part of your training preparation.
• Use rhythmic breathing with a 2nd-stroke frequency; no 3rd-stroke or higher breathing.
• The moment you have difficulty, roll over on to your back and wave your arms for assistance.
• Establish personal temperature collars, and adhere to them.
Participants who are responsible enough to arrive at races well prepared would solve a lot of the problems—but not all of them. What else can be done? Here are my messages to the three key constituent groups of our sport.
TO THE NATIONAL GOVERNING BODY and RACE DIRECTORS:
Here’s my opinion: Temperature collars ARE needed; both lower AND upper guidelines. The NGB needs to institute and enforce these temperature collars. You have a responsibility to your members as a whole to preserve their safety when the individual won’t. You also need to provide some education to membership regarding preparation. The same applies to race directors, but you have an additional responsibility: accept the need for, and make it easy for participants to perform, proper warm-ups. But both groups, NGB and director, are apparently being seduced by some combination of more races on the calendar, securing greater visibility for the sport, and more revenue. So be it: financial realities are what they are. However, at bare minimum, set collars regarding water temperatures in competition.
To THE COACHES:
Our duty here is education, training and skill development—and careful encouragement. Encourage preparation, but discourage racing in 51 degree water. We discouraged racing Alcatraz to particular individuals, and yet some still decided to participate. The next best thing we can do is fully prepare the athlete.
TO THE INDIVIDUAL PARTICIPANT:
Would you attempt Everest if not prepared? I would think most would say no, but some would still try. Would you attempt Everest if not prepared, knowing that many love you and DEPEND on you? What if you are a parent to children, a husband or wife, brother or sister in a loving family, a favored uncle or aunt, a coach or teacher, a best friend, a CEO: Perhaps you would give the challenge second thoughts? This is the question you must ask yourself when making decisions about the swim portion of a triathlon.
When weather turns bad on Everest’s summit, many aspiring climbers are forced to turn around, either by caring guides and supporters (who adhere to strict protocols on summit safety) or by smart climbers who have deeply considered the decision framework that will lead to the outcome of climbing onward or turning around. In triathlon, with the dangers of the swim, the same protocols and thought need to go into the Race Director’s decision of whether or not to allow a swim to occur, and into the individual participant’s personal decision as to whether to jump into the water.
Please make sure you are FULLY prepared for the swim portion when entering a triathlon, and think about the parameters when you might make the tough decision to pass up the chance to race. Some Everest climbers train all year, arrive prepared, go through all the hard work… only to be turned back a few hundred feet from the summit. Sometimes that is the right decision. The same can be said for your triathlon. No matter how hard you have trained…. and how much you have sacrificed, SOMETIMES it is better to turn before the summit… and still wake up in the morning.
As a coach, a dedicated former athlete, parent, brother, uncle, best friend and life enthusiast, my humble view is that the ultimate responsibility lies with the participant. And so to all participants, I say: Take proactive action now; somebody loves you and wants you around.
1. Breathe every 3rd stroke or higher.
2. Hold your breath before expulsion.
3. Breathe through your nose.
4. Take short, shallow breaths.
5. Linger while taking a breath.
6. Focus on front quadrant or catch-up style swimming.
7. Over rotate with hips.
8. Have low strokes rates.
10. Be “loose” in the water.
11. Be a “scrunchy” swimmer. ie. look like a fetus.
12. Have a BIG focus on Distance Per Stroke (DPS).
13. Focus on least strokes across the pool.
14. Cup your hands.
15. “Salute” by placing your hand close to your forehead at entry.
16. Swim with straight arms under water.
17. Have your hands cross your mid-line underwater.
18. Have your hands enter of pull outside your shoulder line.
19. Have your elbow BELOW your wrist/hand underwater.
20. Pet the “kitty” underwater, ie. Don’t have a floppy, gentle or loose hand underwater.
21. Do the “S” stroke.
22. Cut your stroke short at the finish.
23. Do most pool swimming drills.
24. Do Sculling.
25. Focus on kicking harder.
26. Ignore using an ankle strap or swim snorkel.
27. Think working on technique solves it all.
Think this is all there is ………
The most important element of swim technique is tautness! The opposite of #10.
1. Train at one speed only.
2. Swim straight workouts.
3. Swim in open water ONLY.
4. Swim long, non-stop open water sessions ONLY.
5. Have your main swim set(s) less than 50% of your workout time.
6. Not vary your workout composition.
7. Follow what Andy Potts does or ANY faster known swimmer/triathlete.
8. Follow instruction from Michael Phelps’ coach. Would you listen to Usain Bolt’s coach?
9. Wait until 3-4 weeks before your race to swim.
10. Eliminate warm-up or have small ones.
11. Forget to incorporate FAST swimming in EVERY workout. (May differ for some pros).
12. Wear fins in your main swim set.
13. Always use your pull buoy.
14. Wear BIG hand paddles. (Especially the pros who can’t drive them correctly).
15. Run or ride before KEY swim workouts.
16. Think just building your “engine” only will make you improve.
17. Think MORE is always better.
18. Train just HARD every day.
The most important element of training is consistency!
1. Race in a wetsuit or goggles without testing them first.
2. Use a wetsuit too tight in the shoulders.
3. Race without a proper warm-up. (Everyone, pros alike are guilty of this).
4. State to self: “I just need to get to my bike”.
5. Start in front if NOT a fast swimmer.
6. Sprint the start IF not prepared for such.
7. Be afraid of a rip current at the start.
8. Emphasize drafting. (Can be different for SOME pros).
9. Forget to sight FREQUENTLY.
10. Sight “water-polo” style. (May be different for SOME pros).
11. Just follow the person in front of you.
12. Swim in the middle of the pack.
13. Breathe every 3rd stroke.
14. Tap feet unless you want a broken nose.
15. Swim with pool-polished strokes in choppy conditions.
16. ONLY measure your improvement by time.
17. Ignore the 1-body length rule (mainly for elite athletes).
The most important element of racing is experience. Race to “Be Race Ready”.
1. Think you can improve your swim on your own.
2. Hire a coach without specific triathlon swim/swim coaching experience.
3. Listen to fast swimmers on technique, unless they understand open water needs (MOST don’t).
4. Expect pool coaches to know much about open water technique for triathletes. They don’t.
5. Think any coach knows it ALL.
*6. Hire a coach just because they have a coaching credential OR coached some named athlete.
7. Hire a coach if swimming is neither their strength nor yours (btw – same applies to bike and run).
8. Hire a coach who can’t/won’t explain why they prescribe their training.
9. Hire a coach who thinks there is ONLY one training route (theirs) to performance.
10. Put stock in coaches who state swim is not important. The sport is S-B-R!
11. Only swim in a Masters group if there isn’t a focus for triathletes.
12. Forget to thank your coach – some still do it for free.
The most important element to learning is finding the right teacher/coach for you! But, they MUST have honed their craft. There’s an ‘ole adage: Did the coach make the athlete, or, did the athlete make the coach? *(#6). Make sure the answer is the former. Review ALL their athletes, and then look for development and evolution of performance across the group. Low athlete turnover is also a strong indicator.
The best coaches continue their knowledge quest, admitting what they know presently may very well change with more information. These coaches will allow their athletes’ exposure to other coaches especially when the coach may have limited experience as a former swimmer, swim/triathlon coach, and time at the craft (how much time? At least 10-15 years). Here are a handful of coaches worth following for TRIATHLON swim specifics: Matt Dixon; Brett Sutton (follow the substance); Joel Filliol; Mike Collins; Jim Vance; Swim Smooth; Sara McLarty. They are many others.
1. Read or follow non-proven coaching instruction.
2. Watch You Tube swimming.
3. Buy a wetsuit based on price OR endorsement.
4. Think a swim lesson, clinic, camp or short training block in itself will make a difference.
FOR PROS (the *VIP TIPS)
1. Think you can be competitive (front pack) on less than 30k a week without a prior swim background.
3. Train your swim sessions like your bike or run sessions.
3. Run or bike before a KEY swim session.
*4. Race without a proper warm-up. Little has changed here in 31 years since watching my first tri; shocking actually.
5. Waste your time swimming Andy Potts’ workouts. You’re not him.
*6. Skip acquiring open water skills, no matter how fast you are. Many lack these.
7. Do all your swim training in a pool.
8. Train your strength more IF swim is your weakness.
*9. Over rest your swim going into a race unless a competitive swimmer.
*10. Wear those HUGE paddles. Not even some elite swimmers can drive them correctly.
11. Do the “S” stroke.
*12. Breathe every 3rd stroke or higher in a race.
Good luck in your quest for improvement. Gerry Rodrigues.
If you wish to add to the list, send me an email with your don’t: email@example.com