Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tri Talk Tuesday - Sighting Your Way Through Open Water Swimming

Today's post is about my favorite portion of triathlon - swimming!!

The swim is this week's subject in a new Tri Talk Tuesday link up that I will be participating in with Cynthia from You Signed Up For What?, my blogging buddy Courtney from The TriGirl Chronicles and Miranda from The Cupcake Triathlete - all pretty awesome women with blog names that kinda put mine to shame! So be on the lookout each Tuesday as we tackle a new subject and try to provide you will all kinds of great tips and tricks to this crazy sport!

Ok - so back to the topic at hand.....

Swimming has always come naturally to me. I was lucky enough to grow up in Southern California where you couldn't swing a dead cat (sorry, bad analogy) without hitting some form of water. From a friend's backyard pool to the one at the local park, I was either in the chlorine or swimming with the fish in the Pacific. So much so that I ended up swimming competitively for my High School where I had a fairly successful career, breaking a few school records and qualifying for State Finals three years in a row. I've also been a lifeguard and swim instructor, teaching babies from 6 month old babies to adults, as well as coaching my first team right after college. From then on I took about a 10 year break from the sport (child, career - you know, the important stuff) before joining my local Masters swim team here in Oregon.

So, what does all of this mean for my triathlon endeavours? As the swim tends to be the the hardest and most certainly scariest (open water, constant fear of something touching me etc.) portion of a Tri, I am hoping to pass along some useful tips and tricks that might help those of you who are still in that gray area of terrified and comfortable.

There are SO many particulars to swimming that we can discuss but for today, let's skip some of the basics, assume you already know how to swim and start right out of the gate tackling the process of "sighting" during an Open Water Swim (OWS).

"Sighting", or "Spotting" are terms used to describe the process of staying on track in an open water swim. Not knowing how to "sight" can have you swimming in the wrong direction, wasting time and energy that can be better utilized in the bike and run as well as just plain causing you to freak out! Here are some basic guidelines that should get you started in "sighting" your way successfully through your next, or perhaps even first triathlon swim.

  • The swim course for most triathlons (if done in open water) usually runs in a clockwise or counter clockwise direction, starting at one side of the beach and ending at another. Buoys are placed out in the course to help guide you through. Some races, usually Olympic distances or longer may even have you doing two laps of the same course. Meaning you finish your first lap, reach the shoreline and run to the start once again to finish the next lap.
  • First things first - in order to feel more comfortable with the distances between each buoy and the overall swim, I would highly suggest checking out the course ahead of time (race directors usually have the buoys set up the day before) if possible. You might even have the opportunity to jump in and at least get comfortable with the conditions. (i.e. calm and smooth allowing for easy "alligator" sighting, or rough and windy which will require much more effort in pulling your head up and getting your eyes on the prize)
  • So it's game day, what next? After the chaos of the start (we won't even go into how frustrating this can be) and spending the first 100/200 yards either kicking or pushing others off of you ("Gee, this open water swimming thing sure sounds fun, Rebecca!!"), find an "open" space and settle into your swim rhythm. 
  • Assuming you are swimming freestyle (or front crawl) and side breathing, take between 5-10 strokes. The amount of strokes depends on your comfortability level but let's pick 8 for this example.
  • For basic sighting used in most cases, especially rough waters, at the end of the breath on stroke 8, look forward (just above the water line) and search for, or "sight", the first buoy just before you put your head back in the water to breathe out. This should be one continuous smooth movement - easier said than done, I know! It also helps if you can master bi-lateral breathing (rotate breathing on both side of your body) as this will allow you to sight on either side which can be very helpful if water conditions aren't conducive to just the one side.
Example: At the end of his side breath, he is sighting the next marker

  • On the breathes, if you notice that you're heading in the wrong direction, re-align yourself!
  • Keep moving so that others behind you (who may very well be drafting off of you) don't slam right into you.
  • Speaking of drafting - be very careful in not relying on doing this as the person in front of you may not necessarily be the best "sighter". The last thing you want to do is blindly follow someone off course and not realize it until you're 400 yards outside of the pack.
  • Upon reaching the first buoy you may need to lift your head up more frequently in order to ensure you have rounded the correct side and are now going in the right direction towards the second buoy.
  • Once you have rounded the first buoy, take your 8 strokes and and "sight" the second buoy.
  • Continue this pattern until you've passed all buoys and are now "sighting"for the swim exit on the beach. Usually there will be large markers on the beach giving you something easy to search for.
  • Swim as far as you can onto the beach. Running in deep water can be exhausting and depending on the body of water can contain sharp rocks that may lead to cuts and bruises (I know this all to well cutting a 2" gash into the bottom of my right foot after the swim portion of my Oly last year!)

I also wanted to mention one more style of sighting, the "Alligator" method - my preferred method if water conditions allow. In smooth waters, Alligator sighting might be a better option for you. In this situation you are lifting your head out in front of you just enough to get both eyes out of the water (nose and mouth still under) to scan your next next buoy/marker. It can be a little tricky though as lifting your head too high can cause fatigue and may also cause you to drop your hips and legs - so be careful and practice, practice, practice!!

 Alligator example: eyes peaking out just enough while keeping both his nose and mouth under the water

Either of these methods can be practiced in the pool during your regular swim sessions. As my first OWS swim gets closer, I usually take about 500 yards of my scheduled training session to focus mainly on sighting. Of course it makes the process a lot easier in a pool as you will have lane lines to help guide you BUT the method of closing your eyes while under the water and only opening them when you come up to sight definitely helps. 

At the moment I am still laid up from doing any swimming of my own due to last week's bike accident but hope to be back in the pool by sometime next week as I miss it so! In the meantime I hope this info will be useful for some of you and know that I am here for any of your swimming (open water or not) questions and/or concerns. Just hit me up!

What are some of your biggest concerns regarding the swim?
Are there any trips or tricks regarding "sighting" that been the most beneficial for you? 

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