photo credit: Getty Images for IRONMAN

Hello LAVA community. It is my pleasure to write my next article and share an experience with you that we can all learn and benefit from. This will be a mix of entertainment and useful information.

It was this past Sunday at 11 a.m. when I decided to enroll in a regional 4k open water race. If any of you are ever in the Munich area of Germany at the right time of the year you should definitely check out for some well organized and fun open water events.

So up to this point everything seems pretty standard but I left out one very important piece of information – I had not been in pool more than 10 times this year up to this point. Yea, that is not a lot, to say the least and not the way you should prepare for a distance open water race. I could not help myself since I really love racing and told myself that everything will be A-OK.

I showed up to the race venue like a true professional and realized right away that I had forgotten my wetsuit at home. Great! This is the same guy who told you everything about a wetsuit last week. What I forgot to mention is that it helps to bring it to the competition. In my defense, things were a little crazy the last few minutes when we left home since our dog had decided it was a good idea to rip off her bandaid that she had over her stomach after surgery 3 days ago. Things got a little hectic and so we were off to the venue running a little late.

Upon arrival I realized pretty quickly that I had forgotten probably the most important piece of equipment for that day. I jumped right back in the car drove for ten minutes breaking every speed limit on the way and realized that gas tank was empty and that I had left my wallet with my girlfriend so that she could use my ID to check me in. At that point I started screaming in anger at myself but decided quickly that it was time to turn around and use that energy for the race instead. When I arrived back at the venue it was 10:15 am which left me 45 minutes to get my stuff together and find a rental wetsuit. My size was no longer available at that point but luckily someone had turned an old model back because it had a large hole in the crotch area. Well, I thought to myself that this was much better than swimming in a suit that was to small for me and happily took the suit and got ready for the race. At that point my mood was better, I was looking forward to racing and really enjoyed that funny feeling of excitement before a race. It had been a while…

Probably the most important advice from my time as a Florida Gator was to always race for the win. We were told that so many times that it had become second nature to all of us and it is no different today. Needless to say, I started to come up with a strategy that would give me an opportunity to win that race. I obviously took into account that I had not trained leading up to the race but I thought positively and told myself that I would be fine as long as I draft behind the leader for as long as possible. It turned out that I did just that.

The gun went off and I managed to get to the front pretty quickly. Note to all of the readers here, this was not a FINA level race to say the least but you can compare the pace to the very fastest professional triathletes during their 3.8k swims at an Ironman event. The eventual winner and I started to pull away from the pack pretty early on and built a pretty comfortable lead to the chase group. The pace was definitely very high for me but I kept telling myself that the leader was using more energy than I was since I was drafting and that I would hang on in hope for him to get tired and slow down. That happened after about 1k into the race. The pace become comfortable, we had a good lead and I really thought that everything was going as planned. At the half way point we had to get out in order for the splits to be taking and jump right back in to make our way back home to the finish. At that point I was already thinking about when to make my move for the lead but it turned out that that was not necessary as the leader picked the pace up again and I had all hands in trying to stay on his feet. He broke me at the 3k mark and as soon as I lost the draft I completely fell apart. It came to a point were I could not pull with my right arm anymore and where I started throwing up during my swim. Needless to say I was asking myself what I was doing here at noon on Sunday without preparation and really hurting badly at that point. I started to turn around and saw a lead of about 50-70 meters to that chasers. It turned out that that was not enough for the 600m of the race and I was caught right when we had to get out and sprint on land to the finish line. I would not exactly call it a sprint in my case but at that point I was just very very happy that it was over. I ended up in 3rd place and I have been in the pool every day since then.

Now looking back at the race from a coaches point of view I think it was a great experience because I think I got to experience some of the troubles that some of you are going through during your open water swims.

Here is a list of things to watch out for:

  1. Make sure you have all your equipment with you when you leave for the race. Have a check list ready and make use of it. I have never forgotten anything back in the day but things change when you have to worry about a family, dogs, children, etc and when things get hectic it is good to have something to rely on and just put check marks next to.
  2. Take into account how much you have trained leading up to a race. While it is great to believe in yourself and to think positively, you can save yourself from a lot of pain and ensure a better performance when you actually pace yourself. Please do yourself that favor.
  3. Put in the training. Racing is so much more fun when you show up prepared. Had I trained just twice per week leading up the race things would have been a lot better and with 3 sessions per week things would have been just fine. As mentioned in a previous article – consistency is everything here. I know now what it feels like to enter a race with bad preparation in the swim leg and trust me it is worth it to put in the training. You will feel so much better and you have so much more confidence during your swim. It was a scary experience to almost wait for the moment when I was going to fall apart. You will not feel that way when you hit the pool regularly. I know that this sounds very basic for a lot of you but I know a lot of athletes who do not enjoy swimming because they are not good at it and therefore they just do not swim. Here is how it really works. You are not good at swimming and it is no fun because you do not swim. Pretty basic stuff but it really is the truth.
  4. Add one long swim per week into your training routine to teach your body to adapt for a 1 hour performance if that is what you are getting ready for. Intervals will make you fast and are a great way to train but you have to add a long aerobic swim as well in order to teach those muscles to fire for a while without rest.

Finally, I want you to have a sample plan for a long swim session:

  • 100warm up
  • 6*100 (1* 75free+25back 1*75pull+25kick) R 20′
  • 4*50 (1* favorite drill 1*25built +25easy)R 20-30′
  • 2400pull with pullbouy (200 at 70% 50 @80% and 50 back easy) push pretty hard on the freestyle part here and relax during the backstroke at the end of the swim you should feel pretty tired
  • 4*50fins (1*easy kick with kick board 1*25 all out +25easy)R’30
  • 100loosen

Enjoy your swim and until next week!

Jan Wolfgarten is the swim coach for Ironman and 70.3 World Champion Sebastian Kienle, and founder of Swimazing, a web-based swim coaching platform. Beyond his weekly column here, you can look into his detailed program offerings at

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