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Olympic Distance Triathlon Swimming Tips and Tactics

Triathlon Coach Brendon Downey, from EnduranceCoach.com, offers some triathlon swim technique tips and tactics for triathletes that don’t have to do with the actual swimming, but will help any triathlete achieve a faster swim in a triathlon. These points and questions to consider before the start of the triathlon – and the answers to these pre-race questions – will help triathletes race better, faster, and more efficiently.

Pre-Event Course Review
What type of swim start (there are three basic types):

* Pontoon Dive (Gamagori, Ishigaki)
* Deep Water (Ironman Frankfurt)
* Waters Edge (La Paz, Rennes)

Check for the following points:

* Does one side get to porpoise?
* Does one side (or position) have smaller waves?
* Is one side closer to the first turn?
* How far is each leg?
* Is there one or two laps?
* Can you run in further on one side?
* The under footing, is it good across the whole start area? Holes?
* How many athletes?
* Will it be crowded or open for the start?
* Any dangers to watch (boats in the harbor, pylons, rocks under the water?)
* Athlete to start beside? On your favored breathing side, so you can slot in behind them as they pull ahead.
* If you’re not seeded, what do you do?
* How will athletes be called to the start area?
* Top 10 and then a free for all?

Reading the Conditions:

* How will the wind affect the swim?
* On each Leg?
* Will the swimmers tend to drift in a certain direction?
* How will the current affect the swim?
* What is the tide doing?
* What is the water temperature (The real temperature!)?
* How does that affect your warm-up?
* Wetsuit/No Wetsuit?
* Clockwise/Counter Clockwise?
* Think about what everyone else is likely to do.
* Determine if there is a favored position given the conditions and what most competitors will do. Is there a swimmer that is stronger then everyone else? If so then this is where the race will develop. Knowing this what can you do to make the most of your potential swim performance?

Swim Exit and Depth:

* How far from the shore can you stand?
* What land marks can you sight off?
* When you can see the bottom (too deep to stand – need to stand before you can see the bottom)?
* Is it safe to stand early or does the bottom have sharp objects?
* Do you need to porpoise? How many?
* Will you need to wade?
* Can you start wading earlier on one side of the exit?
* What is the footing like?
* Is it better on one side of the exit?
* Anything to watch (i.e. hollow in the ground, shells, rocks, things to trip on) while running to T1?
* Do you run out and get moving or do you need to get you wetsuit off quickly while exiting the water? Distance to run to the transition will determine the best option.
o Short run then you may need to stand and start getting the wetsuit off immediately. You may need to cut a little off the bottom of your wetsuit to improve removal speed.
o Long and you may wish to get up and running first.
o Very long and you may be better off to remove the wetsuit half way through the run before it dries up and sticks to you in the transition.

These points and questions to consider before the start of the triathlon – and the answers to these pre-race questions – will help triathletes race better, faster, and more efficiently.

Generally in professional races there is not a lot of Navigation required, the lead swimmer often has a lead Kayak to follow and everyone else is just following the swimmers in front. In other races, navigation becomes more important. Knowing the distance to turn buoys and the exit can be helpful. I recommend learning a very low head up check to sight landmarks. As you reach forward and begin to roll your body take your breath while looking forward (lift your head). You can do this without lifting your head too high, so you avoid sinking your feet and creating extra drag. This is particularly helpful in non wetsuit swims.

Catching Waves
Waves are there to be caught. I have stood up jumped on a wave and been 45sec ahead of those who kept swimming. Practice this, it’s fun and can come in very handy.

Racing Breathing
Breathing into or away from waves? Generally the advice is to breathe away from waves. I learned open water swimming in windy New Zealand including doing races in Wellington. I like to breathe towards the waves because I can roll more and get my windward arm over the wave, plus I can time my stroke so that I maintain a better rhythm.

Tactics Employed to Drop Other Swimmers
The following tactics are available to drop other swimmers. I give each a rating as to the effectiveness of each. You be the judge:

  • Just swim hard – 3/10.
  • If you’re Craig Walton go for it! Stop kicking and swim hard and move sideways – 5/10. More effective in murky water. Not effective in buoyant clear Hawaiian water.
  • Pull up beside the swimmer in front 7/10. Can be an extremely effective tactic. Over the last 300m of a hard 1500m swim where the leading bunch is strung out and tired, this tactic can limit the size of the bunch and improve your odds of having a lead over rivals off the bike. See the notes below on drafting.
  • Zig Zag. Basic tactic of swimming off course to drop another swimmer. The trick is to Zag just before the following swimmer has matched your Zig – 5/10. Not effective in a race with several similar strength swimmers swimming at the front.
  • Swim directly at a course marker and go around at the last minute 3/10. Not effective on experienced swimmers, more likely to work in junior races. Rick Wells did this too me once at the New Zealand Half Ironman Champs, I had my head down and was going flat out to be there – ouch!
  • Rounding turn boys put in an effort and round further than needed (following athlete might not be expecting this) 3/10. Another tactic that Rick used on me once!

More Tactics (if the swim includes a beach exit and re-entry):

  • Good transition during in and out 3/10.
  • Porpoise/wade/run/wade/porpoise. If practiced and you have good run speed and flexibility it’s an effective option for getting rid of the excess swimmers.
  • Drafting In Wake.
    • The closer you are, the easier it is.
    • There are two effects helping you to sit on, the water behind each swimmer is dragged forward and bubbles from the swimmer in front get under a trailing swimmer and make them more buoyant.
    • How do you do this correctly? Practice!
  • Drafting on a Bow Wave.
    • Sit on the bow wave of the swimmer in front.
    • Your left hand reaches out just where the right hand on the swimmer in front exits.
    • You need to be right beside them.
    • This can also disrupt the rhythm of the front swimmer, slowing them down a little, and increasing your chance of staying with them.
    • This option offers a better position for racing.
    • This drafting can be used to put a gap on the following swimmer.
    • While drafting directly behind a swimmer, swim hard and pull up onto the bow of the swimmer in front.

Check these things before your next triathlon, and then remember to use some of them during the swim. You’ll find yourself out of the water a bit faster than you expected. Remember to try things first in practice to get everything figured out.

Source: Brendon Downey, EnduranceCoach.com




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A triathlete making a comeback and a true blue Scorpio. That sums it up quite nicely :)

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