How To Be A Fantastic Open Water Swimmer Part 1

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How To Be A Fantastic Open Water Swimmer Part 1

When I first learned to swim, I'd be first to the local pool in the morning and as I walked through the changing area, I'd have only one thought in my mind "I hope that space is free by the wall so I can swim up and down without interruption".

As I entered the pool area, I generally found that it had already been taken by a guy doing breast stroke who is clearly intent on standing his ground and will kick out at anyone who encroaches within 5m of his space. How the hell did he get changed so quickly? Presumably he wore a velcro suit with trunks underneath and he's already half a length up the pool..

Now the wall space has gone, I'm now destined to spend the next hour dodging people, when all I want to do is swim in my own space uninterrupted. Such experiences lead me to join a local triathlon coached swim session where I was guaranteed that dodging school kids and fighting for pool space will not be required. Here the lanes are 'roped' and we swim in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction as governed by the coach.

The coach also separates us by 5 seconds to ensure we 'swim in our own clear water'. This is bliss, this is how swimming is meant to be, I focus on my stroke technique safe in the knowledge that I have my own lane, my own space and nobody will bump into me.

Then I entered by first competitive open water mass start event and my swimming world was suddenly turned upside down..

Swimming is 80% technique and I'm consciously competent..

I started swimming at the age of 17 and learned front crawl swimming 'widths' before progressing to 'lengths'. I had no formal tuition until I read more and joined a club. It's said that there are 4 stages when learning a new skill and I recognise each of them, as follows:

1. Unconsciously incompetent - At first I was 'crap' and I didn't even realise it.

2. Consciously incompetent - Having had it pointed out by a coach and having read some books, I was still crap, but at least I knew it. That was a turning point, once I knew it, I could start to think about how to change it.

3. Consciously competent - After many years of practice I was able to swim pretty effectively,  but I have to think about it / concentrate at all times or it goes wrong.

4. Unconsciously competent - This occurs when someone is so good, they can swim with perfect technique without even thinking about it. I have no idea what this feels like.

Having swam for 30 years, I still find myself at stage 3 and don't believe I will ever reach stage 4. When I swim, I have to think about it ALL THE TIME if I want to do it right. Cycling and running are different, I can watch the scenery go by, have a chat and still manage to do it with pretty good form, but not swimming. this is one of the most frustrating things about swimming, I always have to concentrate and it's always an effort for this reason.

Only real elite swimmers reach stage 4 where they are able to swim with perfect form with no real conscious thought, if you are one of those swimmers, you need to know that not many people reading this blog like you.. So here's the point, if you want to swim well, unless you are an 'elite' swimmer, you ALWAYS have to think about your stroke technique, you have to focus on what you are doing at all times.

Tunnel Vision

You've probably heard the term 'tunnel vision' before. Sports psychologists may refer to this as 'internal focus' as opposed to 'external focus'. Internal focus is thinking about YOU and what you're doing, external focus is thinking about the things around you whether it be another competitor, the weather, the crowd or the scenery. Swimming in a pool with lane ropes and 5 second gaps between swimmers gives you the perfect opportunity to focus internally. How does your hand enter the water, reach, extend, catch.. and so on? There are no distractions, just you, the water and your own piece of unimpeded space.

Imagine what would happen if another swimmer crashed into you during that moment of internal focus. Would you continue to think about your stroke technique or would your focus change to the person responsible for this interruption? Here lies the problem with open water swimming, there are far too many external factors for you to focus on, whether that's the person crashing into you, the rough waves, the mouthful of water you just swallowed or simply the whole adrenaline powered excitement of race day, over-stimulating all of your senses. If you're thinking about the external stuff, you can't be focused internally and thinking about your stroke. Unless you've reached step 4 of the learning process, that's really going to cost you.

Being overly focused on the external stuff means you lose track of what you are doing and how you are feeling. At best, it results in a poor performance, at worst it results in a race ending panic attack.

I meet a lot of people who consider themselves to be good pool swimmers, but they just can't replicate it when they swim open water. Being a great open water swimmer isn't about technique and fitness, it's about being able to use your technique and fitness to their full advantage in a completely different environment. Pool swim training is no more than basic conditioning, the skills of open water racing are a completely different ball game.

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