technique

The Secret to Performance Running

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No Two Ways…

JD Beckinsale M.Sc

There are no two ways about it; there’s only one true way to run for performance, but like you I have read lots of conflicting pieces on why this is good or that is good etc.  However, the “experts” don’t mention the real secret to performance running.

I have never observed much variation in the way two animals of the same species run e.g. horses, dogs, cheetahs etc.  Unlike us, they are not given shoes to run in as infants that allow them to change their mechanics to such a degree they stop using the tools nature provided.

Guaranteed - if you over-stride, heel-strike, cadence is too low or you oscillate (lateral or vertical); you are not running efficiently or naturally.  This article is not simply advocating forefoot striking, because if you just do that in isolation you will probably do more damage to yourself than sticking to heel striking…  In this article I am going to take you through why and also look at:

  • Economy of motion
  • The “secret” to performance running
  • Strength
  • Stride length
  • Stride frequency
  • Bare foot running
  • Body positioning
  • Body weight
  • VVO2 max
  • Progressions

What is Economy of Motion?

Economy of motion is one of the key areas of endurance performance; and improving the economy of the athlete is one of the most valuable parts of coaching, that can reduce the injury rate and significantly bring finish times down.

If runners continuously bounce up and down (vertical oscillation), bob from side to side (lateral oscillation), over-stride, keep their feet on the floor for too long or heel strike while running, the result will be increased oxygen consumption, muscle fiber recruitment and lactate production for the given speed = lower economy of motion.

I know some coaches do not worry so much about technique.  They would rather let total volume of training take its course.  This may work for some and possibly more for the elite athletes who are training day in day out.  But with limited time on your hands or if you want to optimize your performance, ensuring your economy is as close to perfect as you can get it, you will reap the rewards without requiring additional training time.

The secret to performance running

The secret to performance running is seen in utilising the stretch shortening cycle (SSC), which occurs in the muscles and tendons of the lower limb.  This mechanism, switches on as the foot lands, but can only work if the muscle and tendons are engaged immediately, as in hopping action.

In running it was traditionally thought that muscles lengthen or work eccentrically as the foot hits the floor, and shorten or work concentrically as the foot pushes off.  However, as Blazevich and Sharp (2006) point out, “recent evidence from human research, and experiments on animals, shows that muscles contract quasi-isometrically during the propulsive phase of many stretch shorten – type movements”.

To explain this “quasi-isometric muscle action”, isometric muscle action “the muscle contracts without any joint movement” so it is held static while under load.  The quasi (partly/ almost) means we have a sort of static or isometric contraction but we don’t… i.e. we still have a limited, but not a great deal of joint action.

To elicit quasi-isometric action in the muscles/ tendon (mostly tendon) the foot has be in contact with the floor for a very brief moment as this action occurs in roughly 0.5 second which gives nearly 50% of the energy required for propulsion to the next step, hence the need for high stride frequency to take advantage of this potential return of energy.

Injuries

It is the force production on foot strike, which, without a doubt, means humans are not designed to heel strike.  If you carried out the experiment above, you have just felt the hard thud and discomfort on heel-striking, which can lead to many injuries as the load is not taken up by stretchy/ elastic muscles and tendons.  If the muscles and tendons are allowed to switch on during that initial strike of the foot, this creates the running equivalent of the car suspension and the load is dissipated through soft tissue not bone.

The muscles and tendons need adequate strength to produce and reproduce this force over hundreds and thousands of repetitions of the run.

Strength

One of the biggest limiting factors in Caucasian endurance athletes, is a lack of strength - the more strength/ force that can be produced on foot strike (added to optimal body weight and aerobic capacity) the faster you will run.

We can see with the 100 – 200 – 400m runners that they are using maximum force production (on foot strike) to hit the times they do and, on the whole, mechanically these athletes run as close to perfect as you can get (it’s also amazing how much work they put into technique).  As soon as you go to 800 – 1500 and above, many people start to run with the injurious habits outlined above.

Running technique should not change whatever the distance, it should just be “smoothed out”: the longer the distance the less height on the knee/ heel cycle which equates to less force production on foot strike, less energy production but ultimately slower running of course.

You will notice in pictures of good elite runners, a point during the running cycle where both feet are off the floor (air time, see picture right).  It can take many years and hours/ miles of running to build the type of strength of top elite runners, but whatever your level, you can aid the improve your running performance by increasing the strength of your running muscles and tendons.

Stride length

Contrary to popular belief, a long stride length is not about kicking your foot as far forward as possible “striding out”.  Stride length is where the foot lifts from the floor, travels through the air and hits the floor again.

Our body is linked (kinetic chain), bones, muscles, tendons etc and for running to work optimally each area through the body must play its part.  So if you just stride out and the foot lands outside the body’s optimal reaction area, you will lose part of the process by producing a breaking force.  Muscles will not be recruited at the right time, leading to negative response and excess movements/ energy requirement.

Stride frequency (strike rate)

Lots of the elite African runners have been found to run around 94 – 98 strikes per min with the athletes trailing in their wake running, still running with high strike rate, but around 90 – 94 strikes per min.  If you are an average height runner whose stride frequency is around 70 or 80 strides per min or lower, your foot will be in contact with the floor for a much greater time, so there is no way you are ever going to utilise on the SSC.

For some of our better runners, who you may have seen running a bit flat or on their heel etc, most of the time they will get away with fast “ish” run splits due to a good high strike rate… add to that the use of the “secret to running performance” and what could happen?

The shorter you are the more steps you would naturally take and vice versa.  Lots of people I have coached find it really hard to get their strike rate up… that is, until they run bare foot!

Bare foot running

When you put athletes on the treadmill and video their running, then sprinkle the magic dust (getting them to take their shoes off!) then video them again, they are always totally amazed at what a change this small adjustment makes aesthetically to the way they look.  In fact, they almost always say “I look like a runner”.  With a little coaching in muscle recruitment patterns (which needs to be re-learnt) they start to get the feeling and rhythm of economical running and even start to enjoy it, instead of running always feeling like hard work, whatever the pace.

Have you ever wondered why so many people have orthotics?  Basically the running shoe industry had been hindering runners for years by adding support to running shoes.  Why do these expensive trainers have lots of cushioning in the heel when the heel is not designed to take any load in running? (You felt this on the jumping on heels experiment).  Support is also prevalent along the inside of a run shoe for the arch of the foot, never giving the foot a chance to switch these muscles/ tendons back on and in most cases switching them off totally (if a muscle or tendon is not used it becomes weak and less useful).

When changing from supportive running shoes, you will see after a while that your arch starts to develop (it is after all just muscle and tendon).  This must be done slowly so your whole body can adjust to this new running style and build the right strength in the correct muscles throughout the body at the right time.

The rest of the body

To run well you also have to have the rest of the body in the right position.  For example, if your bum is sticking out because you are leaning too far forwards, you cannot switch on your bum muscles (glutes), which are needed to work when the foot hits the floor.  Your hips need to be driving forwards, your chest needs to be lifted and muscles that are not being used need to be relaxed.  Your pelvis also needs to aligned correctly and you will be amazed at how “out” your pelvis can be if you spend most of the day slumped at a desk.

Body weight (fat)

I am sorry to tell you, but if you are carrying excess body fat of 5–10kgs or more you are going to add more strain to the muscles and tendons of your body that are designed to carry you (at optimum fat %).   But if you are a bigger person don’t feel that running correctly is not for you - it still works but your progressions may have to take a little longer.

So again, take your time, make sure you build up the longer runs (don’t attempt the vVO2max stuff below until adapted for 3–6 months) and do lots of strides (200m on track on grass) as this in itself will build the strength and lower the body fat to ensure a seamless transition to more economical running.

VVO2 max

This is the velocity (pace) at which your body is utilising the maximum amount of oxygen.  Vo2max on its own is a poor predictor of performance but training at VVo2 max is a great way to improve economy.  At vVo2 you are running at the speed/ pace that are at your aerobic capacity.  This helps by increasing the strength and power of the running and cardiovascular muscles.

Progressions

I know lots of athletes will go and purchase a pair Newtons or racing flats having been told by their mates “this is the way to go”.  Pop them on and off they run with their new running style, for an hour or so, then would you believe it, they are injured.  The word soon spreads that forefoot running injures people… it does not, only progressing too fast, lack of strength and not running correctly injures you.

Conclusion

The bottom line:

  • If you are not running and allowing the SSC to activate, you are not running optimally.
  • The flip side, it is not just about buying some new trainers and landing on the forward portion of the foot and hey presto.
  • If you want to become a better runner, don’t do it as you start to panic about an upcoming race near summer, take the step now to change and use the winter months to build the progressions.

Finally, you still have to put in the hard yards in training, but this way you will do it smarter and get fewer injuries.

Happy training!

Further reading:

  1. Blazevich, A, J., and Sharp, N, C, C., (1995) Physiology of Human Running: From Motors to Fuel Pumps. Sports Science, Brunel University, UB8 3PH, UK.
  2. Bergmann G, Kniggendorf H, Graichen F, Rohlmann A (1995). Influence of shoes and heel strike on the loading of the hip joint. Journal of Biomechanics 28, 817-827
  3. Clarke TE, Frederick EC, Cooper LB (1983). Effects of shoe cushioning upon ground reaction forces in running. International Journal of Sports Medicine 4, 247-251.
  4. Ker, R. F., Bennet, M, B., Bibby, S, R., Kester, R, C., and Alexander, R, McN., (1987) The spring in the arch of the human foot. Nature 325, 157-149.
  5. J., Farrell (date unknown) TRAINING IMPLICATIONS OF STRIDE LENGTH ANALYSIS - XC/Track Coach, Thousand Oaks High School, CA (unpublished).
  6. McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., and Katch, V. L. (2001). Exercise Physiology, Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. USA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  1. Millet, G, P., Jaouen, B., Barrani, F., Candau, R., (2003): Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running. Medicine Science Sports Exercise. 34(8): 1351-9.
  1. M., Warburton (2001) Barefoot Running, Gateway Physiotherapy, Capalaba, Queensland, Australia 4157. Sport science 5(3).
  2. Regan, E, A.(1 ); T, D, Noakes.(1 ); Liane, B, A.(1 ); Romanov, N.(1); Schwellnus, P, M.(1 ); Graham, F.(2) (2004). ‘Reduced Eccentric Loading of the Knee with the Pose Running Method’, in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Volume 36(2), pp 272-277.
  3. Robbins SE, Hanna AM (1987). Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19, 148-156.
  4. Siff, M,C., Verkhoshansky YV (1999). Supertraining (4th Ed.). Denver, Colorado. Supertraining International.
  5. Williams, D, E., (2002). Review of “Stride pattern preference in racehorses”.  California State University – San Marcos (Kentucky Equine Research, Inc).

Done in an hour: Bike

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Done in an hour: Bike You know, and I know, there is no substitute for putting in the miles when it comes to cycling, the more revolutions done in training the easier the racing!

However, some of us work upwards of 40 hours per week and therefore can’t afford to just jump on our bikes and do 3 – 5 hour rides three or four days a week. So, what sessions are going to benefit you the most given our intention that you can get to your bike/gym and be done and dusted in under an hour?

There are three areas we are going to look at:

  1. Technique
  2. Force
  3. Sustained power

Session One: Technique

It’s funny how when people first talk about triathlon they focus so much on how technical the swim is, but the bike… “Oh, I will just jump on and ride, I used to ride to the office etc”. However, cycling effectively (economy of motion) is a very technically demanding skill and that skill starts with the correct fit.

Bike set-up

Have you ever thought what you might have in common with a down-hill skier? Take the triathlete off their bike and look at the perfect TT set up (have a go at it, is this how you feel on your bike, with the weight coming down through your glutes, quads and feet?), then fit the bike to the triathlete.

If your centre of gravity (feel that optimum force coming down through your bum, quads and feet) is not in the most efficient position on the bike you could be loosing 50 – 80 watts (you can test optimum set up on a power type turbo or through a mobile power meter). Even the pro riders are continuously jigging around with their bike set up and remember


A road geometry frame is not designed for full on time trial (TT) bars, unless you have a TT bike (steeper seat angle) you are better off with a little pair of short tri bars that don’t pull you too far forward.


Cadence

Ever wondered why you find it difficult to run well off the bike? One area you may want to look at is your cadence. There have been a number studies done on cadence and all sorts of numbers are banded about. So, just to simplify things a little, if you want to ride 40km at an average cadence of 80-85rpm, this means you have to produce much more force than a rider who is cycling at 105rpm. Or, in weight lifting terms, rider one/ weight lifter one, is picking up 100kgs and trying to lift it continuously for 1 hour against rider two (weight lifter two!) who is lifting 60kg (a little faster) over the same time period.


Cyclists may choose a cadence they are happy with, but the triathlete must go with a higher cadence so as not to fatigue their legs prior to the run. Triathletes are not cyclists, we are a different animal!


So long as rider two has trained at this higher cadence (so his neural pathways are used to it) his legs will not have recruited as many muscle fibres as rider one, thus will be able to run off the bike at a high optimum cadence (above 90 steps per min), not over-striding, thus breaking as he steps forward.

Equipment needed for this session is your bike or a gym bike, clip in bike shoes or straps on pedals and a means of measuring cadence (cycle computer with cadence unit or just use your watch and count, but a very worthwhile investment for your bike).

Warm up (15 minutes): Aim is to increase neural firing of cycling muscles

  • 5 mins @ 95 rpm easy gear to start
  • 1 min @ 100 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 105 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 110 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 115 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 120 rpm same gear
  • 5 mins @ 100rpm building to 70% max HR

Main set (16 minutes): Aim is as for the warm-up and to increase power balance in individual legs

Unclip your right foot and position your leg safely out of the way of the cranks and the wheels. Pedal for 1 min with the left leg and then switch and pedal with the right leg.

Repeat the one-leg drills decreasing by 5 seconds each time: 55 secs left and 55 secs right, then 50, 45, 40 and 35.

Now change up 1 gear (harder) and continue decreasing by 5 seconds each time as follows: 30 secs left, 30 secs both feet, 30 secs right then 25 secs left, 35 secs both, 25 secs right and so on until you are down to 10 seconds per foot. Now got into the cool down. Although I have never had anyone injure themselves doing this session, for safety reasons do not go beyond 10 secs of power on SLD.

Cool down for 5 – 10 minutes of easy spin or run off the bike for 5 – 10 minutes.

Session Two: Force

For this session (54 minutes) you will need: rollers, a heart rate monitor and a mirror.

Rollers, not many people use these now as turbos have taken over in the “home entertainment” department! However, what the turbo does not teach is balance through your pedalling action as you ride (also, try riding with no hands up a slight incline … safely!).

When I talk about force, I am referring to the amount of pressure applied to the pedal at a slow cadence (power is referred to as the amount of force applied at high cadence).

Warm up (15 minutes): The aim is to increase neural firing of cycling muscles

  • 5 mins @ 95 rpm easy gear to start
  • 1 min @ 100 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 105 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 110 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 115 rpm same gear
  • 1 min @ 120 rpm same gear
  • 5 mins @ 100rpm building to 70% max HR

Main set part 1 (16 mins): The aim is to increase force output to cycling muscles and increase balance of left and right legs. Four sets of 3 mins with 1 min recovery spin between each repetition.

NB; your goal is to keep the bike on a straight line (too much force from left or right leg could spell trouble!) while maintaining 65 – 75rpm in your aero position (as this is the position you will want to produce the power in later!).

Finish with 3 mins recovery spin @ 100 rpm

Main set part 2 (10mins): Now apply a smooth pedalling action at your normal rpm in a relatively easy gear. 10 mins in aero position @ 100rpm around 65/75% max HR. This time can be increased to up to 1 hour if you have lots of time.

Cooldown for 5 – 10mins easy spin.

Session three: Sustained power

This is the meat and veg of your triathlon cycling performance training routine. As coaches we can come up with all kinds of fan-tangled sessions, with work and recovery of all different times, but the crux of the situation is: you need to be able to sit in your aero position at your optimum functional (power) threshold. The more power you can produce over the bike course and then run effectively off the bike, the better your result.

For this 50 to 60 minute session you’ll need: a power meter showing watts (ideally this will be a proper meter as the ones on turbos and gym bikes are generally not accurate but they will give an indication), a heart rate monitor, a cadence sensor and either a flat(ish) bike route or a turbo/rollers.


If you don’t have a mobile power meter (Ergomo, Power Tap or SRM), you are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to triathlon, as bike speed itself is irrelevant to triathlon performance. (More to follow on power meters soon).


Warm up (17 minutes): Start with 10 mins at over 100rpm, building to 65 - 75% max HR (so you are working but not breathing too heavy). Now do 7 mins of pick ups and recovery (either 20 secs max out or 1 min at 90%, make sure you are ready for the hard 20 mins, but don’t kill yourself!) and 3 mins recovery spin prior to the start.

Main set: Work for 20 mins at over 100 rpm, as hard as you can sustain for 20 mins. (You need to be highly motivated to do this type of session, don’t go off too hard as you will blow up)

Cool down for 10 – 20mins easy recovery spin.

(10 - 20mins)

Thinking…

The aim of this last session is to find out where your functional power threshold is. Once we have this data we can work out what power output you need to complete a standard or Ironman distance course. You could also find out what your average heart rate (HR) is, but the heart will start to lie over a longer duration event (HR drift phenomena) and, therefore, is not as reliable an indicator as once thought.

Working it out: If your average watts for the 20 mins of the last session was, say, 300 you calculate your functional threshold by multiplying this by 0.05 (300 x 0.05 = 15) and then subtract this from the 300 (300 - 15 = 285). Your functional threshold (what you could maintain for 1 hour) is 285 watts. This is now the "magic number" you need to see improving as you become a better cyclist.

Power to weight ratio: It is reported that prior to the start of each of Mr Armstrong’s Tour de France wins he would look to achieve his magic 6.7 watts per kg (I think he weighed about 71 kg at the time). The higher your power to weight ratio, the stronger rider you are, this is another very important number to get to know and, again, improve on, by either increasing your power or reducing your weight.


Each person has an optimum power to weight ratio. One does not want to lose so much weight that you become weak and ineffective.


For example, if you weigh 90kg and produce 350 watts climbing a hill, a rider weighing 56 kg and only producing 218 watts will climb at the same rate as you -- they have the same power to weight ratio. Once you know your functional threshold you can divide this by your weight and get your own power to weight ratio. For example, a 75kg ride averaging 300 watts for 20 minutes has a functional threshold of 285 and a power to weight ratio of 3.8 w/kg.

Done in an Hour: Swim

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Done in an Hour: Swim This is the start of a series which is intended for all of us who are constrained in the amount of time that we can devote to our training. The series title, "Done in an Hour…" formed the basis of the brief -- come up with a selection of workouts for the swim, bike and run that can be done in an hour, the sort of time we can squeeze in before work, as a long lunch or after work but before we have to deal with all the family stuff.

The first of his articles, James looks at three swim sessions that are designed to improve your technique, your race preparation and your open water swimming. All of these can be fitted into that magic hour as long as you focus on the task in hand.


Session 1: Technique Swim

In order to identify your weaknesses you first need to complete a basic time trial so you have a benchmark that you can judge your improvements against. This timed swim needs to be long enough for your weakness to reveal itself, but not too long that you totally lose the plot! I find the double distance 400m swim very effective for this as it gets longer as you become more efficient.

Double distance 400m Time Trial

Every four to eight weeks you should complete a good warm up session and then swim 400m. Get a friend to time the swim (you will need each 100m split and the total time) and to record your stroke count on every fourth length. In an ideal world, a bit of video so you can see what you look like swimming would not go amiss either.

Each time you do the test just add another 400m so the first is 400m, the second 800m, the third is 1,200m and the fourth (your last-preseason one) is 1,600m. This should be done approximately six weeks out from your first A-priority race.

What are you looking for?

I'm sure that you have a time in your head in which you would like to complete your Standard (1,500m) distance swim in? Remember, triathlon is three disciplines and you need to get out of the water relatively relaxed and strong; it always amazes me when coaches or athletes claim they where first out of the Bla Bla swim or had the fastest bike at Wotsit! Well done, I say, but what was your actual triathlon time? That's what counts…

Olympic distance target times and their 100 and 400m splits work out like this:

Target 100m time 400m time
29 mins 1.56 per 100m 07.44
25 mins 1.40 per 100m 06.40
21 mins 1.24 per 100m 05.56

There is absolutely no point in doing a 1500m swim in January in the UK and getting disappointed that you can’t hit the times required. Winter is for working on your weakness and building confidence.

Working out your weaknesses

Your swimming must always have an aim or goal (especially if you have not come from a swimming background) to ensure you keep focused on the next swim set and you can record your positive progress.

Three key areas to watch out for are:

  1. Leg kick
    • Not kicking from the hip (ie, you can feel your bum working)
    • Not pointing toes (focus on ankle flexibility)
    • Kicking too deep or outside the body line (to help in rotation)

All of these weaknesses in leg kick can cause drag behind the body which will slow you down by pulling your legs and bum towards the bottom of the pool.

  1. Balanced body
    • Lifting the head to breathe or holding the head too high during swim
    • Pulling straight down during the catch phase (if you are pulling straight down you are not catching the water and a bobbing effect takes place)
  1. Arm stroke
    • Not setting up the stroke with an effective catch phase (same as above)
    • Not holding onto the water effectively under the body and throughout stroke
    • Not finishing the stroke effectively enough to get over onto your opposite side… to set you up for an effective catch phase!

Although swimming with your club or in a master’s swim session can be a great workout, it can also have the biggest detrimental effect on your swim technique (if you are building a stroke), as you will tend to race the guys in your lane and you will not be relaxed or working on your specific weakness. More importantly, swimming on someone’s feet every session does not set you up for swimming open water… …in your own water!

Dealing with your numbers

In this short article I can’t explain what could possibly be wrong with everyone’s stroke, but remember an effective swimmer will move through the water effortlessly, with little drag or friction, and a low number of strokes per distance (around 14 – 16 strokes and in a time of around 15 – 20 seconds per 25m).

The penny "dropped" for me in swimming when I swam with a junior squad. There were 8 to 10 year-old boys and girls quite happily doing 60 to 65 seconds per 100m; no muscle mass, no power – just good economy of motion. Swimming is so like golf, if you try and whack the ball with all your might you don’t get it. On the other hand, if you relax (and work diligently on technique) you will get your hole in one!

If your time is too slow, or your stroke count is too high, you need to set about working on aspects of your stroke to change your weaknesses into strengths. Take responsibility for your swimming, this can be done effectively by going to a swim coach who can make a difference, as what you feel you may be doing in the water can be quite different from what is happening in reality. A little video analysis can paint a thousand words.

Session 2: Race Preparation

For this session, hopefully, you will need to have have been working on your weakness and now have some free space in your mind to concentrate on race specific drills and sets!

The first thing you should get stuck into your swim practice is a dry land warm-up. At some point watch the top 1,500m swimmers in action and then visualise the perfect stroke as you are on poolside. Hold onto the vision as you do your arm rotations, basically;

  • 20 x single arm rotations (forward and backwards)
  • 20 x horizontal swings across the body touching your shoulder blades
  • 20 x monkey swings (one arm up and over your head so your hand touches the spine behind your neck as the other hand comes up to the same armpit)
  • 10 x double arm rotations forward and back

If you are doing a race or open water swim, perform the same warm up each time and you will be amazed at how having the same pre-event routine will calm the nerves!

Race practice

You don’t have to wait until the weather warms up to practice open water skills, try some of these in your pool.

Start the session with a normal warm-up of between 400m and 1,000m followed by between 1,000m and 1,500m of drills. I find it best to do ½ length of a drill then ½ length normal swim or one length drill and one length swim to accentuate the 'feel' of the particular drill. Be creative with putting together your swim session, you want it to stay interesting! (See this article for some other drill session ideas.) During the main part of the set incorporate the following:

  • Drafting: Instead of going 5 to 10 seconds behind the next swimmer, go off on their toes and feel how much easier it is to sit behind someone. Drafting is legal in the swim! Don’t get too used to this, as there will be times when there are no feet to swim on in open water and you will have to swim in your own water, happily, comfortably and relaxed.
  • Sighting: First, try swimming for 10 strokes with your eyes closed. You will pull in one direction or the other – guaranteed – and this is what will happen in open water if you do not keep to a set course. Most of you will not practice this enough in training and then try to get away with keeping your heads down too long in a race. You can easily go way off course in just a few strokes. Practice being comfortable lifting your head, if it’s a calm day with no swell you need only lift your eyes a little, however, if it’s a rough swim you will need to lift up onto your chest so get used to it.
  • Overtaking: Have a friend keep to their normal stroke rate and time (race pace) while you sit in for 75m then on final 25m see how little effort you can put in to overtake. It is important that the other person does not speed up and you try and keep calm.
  • Turning at a buoy: Have a friend stand in the middle of the lane (when it’quiet!) and practice turning round them. This can also be done with a few friends all turning at once for realistic race simulation. Remember nobody wants to get into a punch-up out there, it just wastes energy.
  • Dolphin dives: Practice beach starts in the pool by starting the set from a dolphin dive and not a push off the wall.
  • Strokes per minute: If you know how many strokes you do per distance you can gauge how you are doing out in the big blue, and even how many strokes it will take you to complete your swim.
  • Pick up’s: By this I mean that you should practice going out harder than normal to imitate tension/ pre event nerves over say 25 to 75m, then settle back to your normal stroke rate for another 25m to 75m
  • Pairs swimming: If you can, get two or three of you to swim up and down together in a line (the lifeguards love this one!) and deal with issues like hitting hands and being in close proximity to one another.
  • Wetsuits: As you know, wearing a wetsuit is a totally different swim sensation than non-wetsuit, so don’t leave swimming in your wetsuit until your first open water swim. Use the pool and pace clock to get the feel for the suit and the times you are looking to swim, then transfer this feeling to the open water.

Session 3: Open Water

Use your imagination! All I ever see is triathletes swimming round and round and round in open water. Especially on your first couple of visits to an open water session put into practice what you have learned over the winter.

  • Dry land warm up: Same as at the pool, but put on your wetsuit first (this keeps heat in as you generate it).
  • Warm up: Spend 10 minutes building the stroke, but stay relaxed.
  • Drills: Use the same drills you have used in the pool (for about 10 minutes), you need to get used to the wetsuit and the open water.
  • Time/distance/stroke count/feel: This is one of the most useful exercises to do in open water. Start by recording a specific time over a set distance, while keeping to a normal stroke count and watch this improve as you get closer to the big one! Use a tree, buoy or other marker (something that will not move in coming months) and carry out a 1 x easy – 1 x race pace – 1 x hard swim over, say, 400m to 800m (with an easy swim back to the start point) and record/ remember your time and SC. With this exercise you will also learn that putting in massive amounts of effort does not always guarantee faster times.
  • Drafting/over taking: This is the same principle as the pool based drills, covering the same distance as above. Get a buddy to swim it with you at your normal race pace. Then, after about 200m of sitting in and feeling comfortable, slip out of their draft and overtake. Again, stay as calm as possible and think about what you have to change to move quicker through the water.
  • Turning at buoys: Again, as you did in the pool session. Get some friends to practice this with you so you get used to turning under pressure from other swimmers… race specific training is better training.
  • Sighting: This has got to be one of the main areas where most age-group triathletes waste far too much energy. First, from not sighting enough and going off course and, second, from lifting the head for too long or far too high. If you normally do your open water swimming in a lake and your main race of the season is a sea swim… …get to the sea and practice, be specific in your training. (OK, you may not be able to get to the sea and back in an hour...!)
  • Group swim: Get a few swimmers of the same standard to go out with you and swim in close proximity to one another and get used to the tagging, bumping, etc.