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Unfamiliar Race Venue by Jacques Adam

In my last guest blog, I explained how open water swimming in a race was different from pool swimming and for most athletes, certainly more stressful.  My last race a few weeks ago, the IM 70.3 Whistler, was a venue that I had never raced.  The unfamiliarity forced me to focus on the steps that I follow to mentally prepare for an open water race.  Open water swimming requires not just physical preparation, but mental preparation.  In this post, I outline how I adjust and prepare for an open water swim race.

Logistics of getting to the venue and parking:

You may wonder why I bring this up as a point of mental preparation for a swim?  If you haven’t’ done any of these races before, you have to appreciate that you are not just meeting a few buddies at the beach for a little swim.  There may be a few hundred to a few thousand-people going to the same place as you are.  You rarely just park next to the swim start and jump in.  There is nothing more stressful than arriving at a race venue and facing closed roads, redirected cars and remote parking lots.  Your swim start minutes away while you wait in queue to park the car. Reduce your stress level and plan well ahead.  Know what to expect and leave yourself enough time.

Rule No.1:  read the athlete guide and the notes from the race director explaining how you get to the venue, where to park, how to set up for your swim start.  

Check the venue and swim part or all the course prior to the race:

No matter how often I have raced or completed the same race, I always arrive early enough to check the venue and swim part or all the course a day before the race.  I check where we go into the water, where we come out.  I look for:  rocks, piers, weeds, muddy bottom, shallow or deep start, position of the buoys marking the course, where will the sun be in the morning, waves and wind direction, reference points for sighting, transition ins and outs.  I also try to talk to other swimmers who have swum the course in the past for advice.

Checking and swimming the course beforehand allows me to mentally prepare for race morning.  There are no surprises and I can focus on swimming my best.  Most venues also allow a warm-up swim shortly before the race.  I always arrive early enough to get the short swim in.

Rule No.2:  to reduce race day stress, check out the venue and swim part of the course prior to the race.

Stage yourself at a reasonable position for the start:

It surprises me how many athletes get this wrong.  Nothing more annoying in a swim to encounter 300m into the race several swimmers who are doing a slow breast-stroke.  Passing a swimmer who is doing breast-stroke is not just difficult but dangerous.  When switching to breast-stroke, that slower swimmer almost comes to a complete stop in the water and becomes a six-foot kicking barrier, difficult and dangerous to approach; and in turn the breaststroker exposes himself to an unpleasant swim experience.  The slower swimmer will likely kick and possibly concuss an approaching faster swimmer.  Faster swimmers may take this personally and grab or sink the breaststroker.  If you are already on the edge and swimming breast-stroke, you will likely be pushed into panic mode if you get dunked into the water.

This scenario can be avoided if you know your capabilities and start at a reasonable position.  You need to know your 100m or 100y swim times for a long-distance course.  If you swim 2 minutes per 100m consistently in a pool, you are going to swim a half-iron distance (1900m) in about 38 minutes.  The advantage you gain with a wetsuit is partly lost by not having walls to push off every 25 yards.  No matter how optimistic and sure of yourself, you are not going to swim much faster in an open water setting.  Many venues now have rolling starts with “corrals” set up by expected time.  Place yourself realistically.  Don’t think that starting at the front will get you to the end faster; it will just expose you to a miserable experience.  On the other hand, don’t be so pessimistic as to place yourself at the end…you may have to pass many of those breaststrokers.

Another error many swimmers make, is to start too fast.  This leads to a breakdown (and to survival breastroke) usually around 300m in.  At the start, I tell myself to keep it under control, start slow; suppress the urge to just take off…focus on technique, balance, breathe, find that “happy place”.  Once I find the rhythm, I pick up the pace and I gradually build to a “ZEN” rhythm…effortless effort!

Rule No.3:  Place yourself in a reasonable “time” corral and start slow and controlled and gradually build speed.

Navigating and going around corners (buoys):

Sighting while swimming is an important skill.  I saw many swimmers at Whistler stop in the water, tread to see where they were, some even stopping at a turn to see where to go.  Remember that there are hundreds of swimmers behind that are following the same line and want to go around that same turn.  If you do this, you will get dunked.  The key is to keep swimming and sight using the “sneak peak at a breath” technique.  If you don’t see where you are, try again on the next breath, but don’t stop…keep swimming; follow other swimmers’ bubbles and feet and try again.  I will leave the technical details to Celeste, but it is important to practice this skill before a race.

Rule No.4:  learn to sight and don’t stop in the water to “see” where you are.

I hope my comments are of use to you.  Open water swimming and racing is an exhilarating experience, but a good experience requires both physical and mental preparation.

Jacques Adam

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