Photo credit: Cedric Wane

Since I was two years old, I have been in the water. Mommy and me classes were the start of my swimming career, and eventually, by the time I was seven, I was on a different pool deck every weekend racing all over New England. I was never really something special, but I worked my butt off, had a deep desire to improve, and developed a passion for competition.

I’ve had a lot of swim coaches in my life- ones that give you big sets and then go sit in their office, ones that spend every minute of practice looking at your stroke, ones that just want you to go hard despite your stroke falling apart, ones that constantly remind you of ways to fix your technique, and ones that get in the water and physically show you how its done. I have seen it all. And over the years, I have developed an individual stroke- a rhythm that feels comfortable and natural to me. I have been stopped multiple times by strangers in neighboring lanes with comments such as “Wow, your stroke is so pretty,” or “You make it look so easy.” Turns out, looking good doesn’t matter at all when it comes to open water swimming.

Swimming for triathlon is different than a lot of what I have learned in my lifetime of laps. Here are three tips to think about to become a stronger, more efficient open water swimmer.

Cadence, cadence, cadence.

My stroke may have been lovely to look at all these years, but in open water, the turnover has to be high and aggressive. This is even more important with rough water swims where you are dealing with forces moving you in every direction. Getting your hand in to the clean water under your body as fast as possible, while still maintaining a strong catch, is the name of the game. By turning over your arms quickly, you will eliminate unnecessary glide and always be propelling yourself forward with momentum.

You need to learn how to sight and swim straight.

Lakes, ponds, rivers and oceans don’t have a black line to follow. To learn about your tendencies as a swimmer, push off the wall in the middle of the lane and close your eyes. Take ten strokes and see where you are at the end. You may hit the lane line before you reach ten (be careful!) or you may find that you swerved to the right a bit. This can give you some information on what direction you might naturally go in if you aren’t paying attention.

In the open water, using someones feet as a guide is not always reliable. If you are swimming behind someone who has picked a good line, then use this as your pathway, but make sure to also find landmarks to sight off of. I always scope out the swim course and surrounding trees, buildings, flagpoles etc. so I know what to look for during the race. Practice sighting drills in the pool focusing on only a slight lift of the head that flows with your stroke. You don’t need to sight constantly- find a rhythm of looking forward every six to ten strokes to make sure you are on track.

Swimming is about more than just your arms.

Swimming is incredibly rhythmic. Your paddle- from the fingertips to your elbow, is what catches the water every stroke, but a fast open water swimmer uses more than their upper body. A drive from the core is essential in creating more power from your stroke.  As your right arms enters the water and sets for the catch underneath you, think about driving the left side of your core towards it. A controlled rotation should occur through your trunk, which contributes to the vigor generated by each pull. The legs are involved as well in the movement through the water- a two beat kick emphasizes and assists the rhythm of the body rotating from side to side with each catch. Next time your arms are about to fall off during a training session or race, think about using these critical parts of your body to continue driving you forward.