Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Thoughts on Open Water Swimming

In my opinion the swim can be the most dangerous part of a triathlon. You can tire yourself out since you normally can't touch bottom and have to keep swimming or get knocked out by a foot and potentially drown. If you panic you're going to exert a hell of a lot more energy than while swimming. The bike and the run portions are not similar and could be considered opposite in terms of energy exertion since you can simply slow down and not exert as much energy. I realize you can crash on the bike but, you're still on land and medical attention is easy to get. If you don't read past this point and you're doing your first triathlon...DO A COUPLE PRACTICE OPEN WATER SWIMS! You'll thank everyone who has ever told you to do one.

This weekend I went on vacation to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. I have never been there before even though I lived in Charlotte, NC for 10 years which is about 4 hours away. FYI: driving in SC is extremely boring, it's mostly tree lined interstates the whole way with nothing to see. Unless you're on I-95 heading towards the NC/SC state line...then the South of the Border billboards provide some comic relief. I'm writing this blog mainly because of the seemingly instantaneous change in my open water swimming abilities.

Anyways, while I was there the Cal U Sprint Triathlon was going on. Needless to say I decided to do it. The race report will come later when I get some pictures. This was my 3rd triathlon and 3rd open water swim. The first two swims went horribly (I can say they were a success since I didn't turn back and I'm still alive) but, this one was much different. I did not have any problems at all...other then this guy floating on his back who kept bumping into me and I eventually pushed him away.

First off, I started swimming laps in January and did not have the slightest idea how to perform rotary breathing and it seems most people struggle with this at first. I would guess it takes 4 or 5 times of swimming at least 500 meters each time to become comfortable with rotary breathing. Bilateral breathing is also very beneficial but, it's similar to trying to write with your opposite hand. I still haven't become comfortable with bilateral breathing after 4 months.

When I signed up for the DC Triathlon, I started reading every article about training for and racing a triathlon I could find. I now have a bookmark tab labeled triathlons which runs the length of the screen when opened. All of the articles about swimming in a triathlon seemed to suggest the same thing. YOU NEED TO DO A PRACTICE OPEN WATER SWIM! I completely agree with this statement. I did not do a practice open water swim mainly because I managed to not be in DC every weekend an open water swim was taking place. If you're doing your first triathlon you need to plan a practice open water swim, preferably with as many other people as possible.

My first triathlon swim was trial by fire. I was accustomed to swimming in a pool and being able to see the bottom. This time the swim was in a lake in North Carolina. If you've spent a decent amount of time in NC you know the soil many areas is clay. Meaning, the bottom of the lake I swam in was clay making it hard to see anything in the water. I was not very nervous before the swim since my swim wave was fairly small. However, I got in the water to warm up, made it about waist deep and pushed off to swim...I immediately stood...I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face in the water and I was not happy about this. I tried to accept the fact that I wasn't going to be able to see at all during the swim but, it wasn't happening. Eventually after swimming around for a minute I realized I didn't have a choice.

The race started and I threw pacing out the window and ran into the lake. I stayed to the outside and only had to deal with a few people around me. Not being able to see the bottom didn't bother me that much until I started to get farther out and could actually see the bottom. (I guess the lake bottom was being churned up near shore from everyone being in the water.) I started to freak out a little for some reason when I could see tree stumps (man made lake) and was apparently terrified of stopping to stand up on these since I could still touch the bottom. My pace was far to quick and I couldn't calm down or control my breathing. As stated in the previous blog, I swam the first 250 meters faster than planned and panicked when I nearly couldn't breathe. It took a long time to calm down after looking around wondering how the kayaks or boats would spot me and make it to me in time and then thinking I was going to drown. Not soon enough I remembered I had a wetsuit on and could pretty much float. I still couldn't regulate my breathing the rest of the race and probably only managed to freestyle 50 meters at a time. Based on some blogs I've read this is very common during a first triathlon. DC Rainmaker's First Tri

The second triathlon swim was also my second open water swim. This time it was in the Chesapeake Bay which had small swells to deal with. It was basically the same deal as the first swim except I tried to start out in back and pace myself. This didn't work and I ended up swimming the same way. I think the "swells" may have tired me out more since I was trying to fight them rather than roll with them.

The third swim makes it seems like my open water swimming abilities have progressed light years virtually overnight. I got one pool swim in between triathlons and some messing around in the ocean the day before the Tri. By messing around I mean diving into waves and breast stroking...sounds a little dirty. I don't know if this helped or not but, the next day the swim went surprisingly well.

I walked down to the beach in my wetsuit along with everyone else, walked the 500 meters to the start and got in the water for a bit. Strangely, I was not comfortable in the water during my warm up swim and was worried I was going to have a three peat. (In case you're curious, Firefox suggests threesome if you type threepeat. Still not sure which spelling is correct. Did the Bulls ever manage to trademark that term? I should know considering I work at the Patent and Trademark Office. I just hope they comeback against the Heat.) I stood on the shore and waited for the mass start. I didn't have a swim plan per se, other than not running out with the lead group. The horn went off and I hung back and slowly made my way into the water. Using my amazing logic abilities...I decided I was going to quickly move farther into the ocean and wait until almost everyone in front of me started swimming. Right before I started swimming I decided I was going to breaststroke out to the first buoy since it would be easier and not as tiring to get through the ocean waves this way. I finally made it to the first turn buoy and had to tread water since there was a ton of bunching. After the turn I pointed myself where I wanted to go and freestyled. I swam along with a decent amount of room at a comfortable pace and just waited for my breathing to get out of control. IT NEVER HAPPENED! I just cruised along stopping to breaststroke a few strokes every minute or so to see if I veered off course since I was passing some people and didn't trust their open water navigational skills. The rest of the swim was as smooth as I could have hoped for, I managed to roll with the swells in the ocean and control my breathing. I was as calm as a clam and comfortably did about a 500 meter swim in the ocean (with the current) each of the next two days. I tried going against the current but this proved very difficult especially the second non tri swim. The current was extremely strong and it felt as if I had swam 100 meters and I probably swam 25 meters judging by the lifeguard stands.

To sum things up, it took me three open water swims before I was comfortable swimming in open water and you could say I learned the hard way...don't learn the hard way, it's scary. However, it may be different since my three swims were during triathlons and a practice swim might be much more relaxed. At least you'll be used to water that is dirty and moving at the same time. To quote Hitchhiker's Guide..."Don't Panic!" (Written in Large Friendly Letters)

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