Open Water Swim with an Ironman: Tips to Swim and Conquer Panic in a Race

with Coach A!

I want to write all of this down before it slips away and then be able to read this post before race day. So we have this great informal group of triathletes in Austin, called Tri-Oomph!, many of them Asha volunteers who tasted endurance sports through running with Strides of Hope in either a marathon or half marathon or a trail race and then moved onto the world of multi-sports in the form of a triathlon. Once you’ve tasted that adrenaline rush through what you can make your body and mind accomplish there’s no looking back really.  A triathlon seems a natural progression from a marathon/half-marathon training program. For one, during HM training you have to cross-train on off-running days. In a triathlon you’re cross-training i.e. doing different things all the time. No immense pressure on one singly part of your body. I remember going to bed with aching legs but I’ve had no issues during the tri-training period.

And of course, Austin is a triathlon-crazy city. There are tons of lakes around, a gorgeous natural open water pool in Barton Springs so swimming outside is no luxury. And then there’s the Austin-native Lance Armstrong effect and coupled with at least 6-7 organic running stores and more than 20-30 formal and informal running groups, you have a veritable treasure trove of opportunities to test your endurance limits.

One such Austinite is Amit Bhutani, whose pictures will tell you that he’s an awesome athlete, and no less an Ironman.  He did his first spring tri in May 2007 and finished the AZ Ironman last year. He said, when he began, he didn’t even know how to swim! Charanya swam for him during his first relay tri. And that was 2 years before his first tri.

He’s the ‘Coach’ for the group Tri-Oomph! I recently joined the mailing list of Tri-Oomph! which has been great. Although I’ve been training with Ironchicks, Rogue’s beginner Tri program, this informal group has been great for bouncing off ideas about what races to do, which ones to avoid. More importantly, I’ve reached out to them for open water swim assistance when I can’t get enough at Ichix. I went out to BS with Sangeetha, our ace Tri-Oomph! swimmer on Tuesday night and was able to do some swimming there without overly panicking. Amit responded to the same email with a bunch of drills and so I pounced on the opportunity to get out there and train with him.

He is a fantastic coach. I was afraid he’d be tough and I’d get more terrified in the water. But no such issues at all. We began with the basics. How to get on a wetsuit. I wish I’d taken pics of the wetsuit putting on part, but that would have slowed us down even further, because, I kid you not, it took me more than 15 minutes to get it on! A cool trick Amit taught me was to put on a plastic bag onto your foot and that way the wetsuit slides on faster. I also used some anti-chafing wet-suit lubricant which made the ends easier. But it was one-step-at-time. Unhurriedly, Amit coached on small tips on how to get the suit on efficiently. Then he recommended I put on the goggles before getting the cap on for fear of it getting knocked off during the race. And the best anti-fog for the goggles? Your saliva!

Ok, so here we are in our wetsuits (me for the first time in a wetsuit I borrowed from my friend Karen). It was incredibly tight around the chest and the neck but I felt so buoyant in the water (a bit breathless too as the lungs felt flattened against the ribcage!). We stepped into BS pool but weren’t ready to swim yet. Coach A said, two things that are important for an open water swim:

  • Drafting – in a traithlon, it is completely legal to draft in the swim – during the bike it can get you disqualified if you’re less than 3 bicycle distance after someone else by USAT rules. But during the swim, drafting gives you a big boost in speed because the force of the water in a wake left by someone else can add a lot to your speed. So this is what we practiced first. Amit plunged ahead in the shallow portion and I had to keep up with him or just follow his bubbles (wake) either directly behind or to the back-left or back-right (right next to is no good). I must say, having swum mostly in the pool and feeling annoyed with others’ presence in your lane, this took some getting used to. Open water swimming is quite, quite different!
  • Sighting – since you don’t have lanes and sometimes the water will be completely opaque you have to sight to see where you’re going. Here we practiced a cadence for sighting. First, fix a non-moving target to sight off. We picked a large building to the east. Then he asked me to sight every 5-7 strokes. Why? Because it is so easy to drift off course in larger # of strokes so unless you’re really proficient in open water, it’s hard to go very far off-course in 7 strokes.

Amit said this was not the place to give me tips on swim technique. Here I was to swim as much as possible and get over the fear and feel comfortable with the fish, the plankton, the weeds, the moss and whatever else an open water body might throw at you. He emphasized, these are not your enemies. Nothing in this body of water can harm you!

After that, we got ready to swim. We did a few laps across the width of the pool, still in 5 ft deep water, went to the other side and touched the rock. This was where all the other triathletes were beginning their swim too (the 1/8 mile marker which marks the 200 meter distance till the end of the pool). He asked me to watch people around and see if they have useful things to learn! After the couple of laps across, I braced for the length. We began. The wetsuit felt great by now, I felt light and buoyant even though it still felt extremely tight. Again as usual, before the depth plunged I panicked a bit. But I didn’t stop. I reverted to breast stroke and then went back to freestyle as soon as I could. We got to the other end and I didn’t feel too bad about it at all! Breathless a bit maybe.

Amit noted I didn’t have any breathing cadence set nor did I set a sighting cadence. Also he said, you can’t let your mind tell you when to stop swimming freestyle. Need to get a finite stop to the wading/breast stroke/treading. So we agreed on 15 strokes of freestyle and 5 strokes of breast. We began swimming back to the mile marker sighting off a pole at the end. There were quite a few things to keep in mind so I actually didn’t think of panicking at all. First I had to sight every 5-7 strokes, then I had to count my freestyle strokes and switch to breast and finally I had to get the breathing cadence to 3 (which slipped to every 2 strokes because I was breathless!).

And then we went back and did about 100 meters without my wetsuit so I could get an idea of how it would feel like putting it all together without the buoyancy of the suit. It was perfectly fine, in fact I did even better because I was not as breathless!

Eventually I think I did ok, did one but not the other sometimes. Putting it all together is going to take a couple more trips to BS. But it felt like a HUGE improvement today. One-on-one, the information I got was not at all overwhelming, I had my job broken down to byte-sized chunks which felt so much more achievable. I hope I can get out to BS pool once more to put it all together on my own.

Race Day Tips for the Swim

During race day he said, try to get to there when transition opens (maybe as early as 5 am). Other than beating traffic, it helps to get to the lake and find where the swim exit is. Look carefully for sighting target and then do a 5 minute out and back to rehearse how I’m going to end my swim. He mentioned a friend who did the Rookie Tri and had a complete meltdown during this rehearsal. But he got it out of the way before the actual race began. I’m taking this tip to heart fosho!

Before the gun goes off, I should position myself to the far-end of the group to avoid being near the fastest swimmers. While there, stand and fix the sighting targets and get a mental strategy going of how I’m going to swim this race. That helps to calm the nerves and focus inwards (see previous post). Swimming from buoy to buoy may be a good rookie strategy, he agreed when I asked him if I could do that. Its not efficient because you end up swimming a longer distance. He said, definitely need to sight off the turning buoy so I know where to turn.

Here are some pics from the swim today. Wish I’d gotten one in the wetsuit!! Amit did suggest trying to put it on again as practice but I was beat!

Feeling 'buoyant' after a good swim coaching session!With Coach A!


16 responses to “Open Water Swim with an Ironman: Tips to Swim and Conquer Panic in a Race

  1. Wow!! You have a very retentive mind my friend 🙂 Great post. Will just add one more thing to yr list…

    PACING: Remember to overcome temptation of going out too fast. Start easy (very easy), build and settle into a nice rhythm and when you are past halfway you can start to build into a stronger pace. This is when you will pass all the rookies who are now gassed out since they went out too fast 🙂

  2. Since you have a 750m swim to do on Sun and you are still 5 days out, try and see if you can 800…thats two full laps at BS. Two reasons…1) Will build yr confidence (and since endurance is mostly mental it will help come race day that you have swam the race course distance in one sitting albeit with breaks) and 2) you can afford to since swimming takes the least out of yr body i.e. fast recoveries.

    If you do decide to do 800m, follow this set:

    1) 200m warm up – Focus on getting acclimated to the temp and breathing. No more than 70% effort.
    2) 400m Build. This will be the time to get into a 80-90% effort zone and build into a strong but steady pace. Time this part to see what to expect on race day.
    3) 200m cool down – Title says it all 🙂

      • it does! cha you gotta keep me honest in finishing this one. excited! coach A, if u’r around downtown side this evening feel free to drop by. we won’t ask you to jump in the water. will give you a report on the efforts this evening later on O.W.

      • Also, we can practice drafting on each 200m distance and switch.

        On Tue, May 31, 2011 at 4:54 PM, Sirsha Chatterjee wrote:

        > it does! cha you gotta keep me honest in finishing this one. excited! coach > A, if u’r around downtown side this evening feel free to drop by. we won’t > ask you to jump in the water. will give you a report on the efforts this > evening later on O.W. > >

  3. Wish I could. I get on a con call with China in 5mins so no BS for me today. Will see you on Fri AM though. Also, looking fwd to yr report 🙂

    • We did it Amit! The first 100 mts was warmup and then 300 with majority freestyle and breast stroke only when tired. So almost 20 strokes of fs at a time. Focused on the stroke under water ( bending elbow). Didnt do a great job of sighting. Crashed headlong into a swimmer. And cha many times. Did try drafting off Cha but she is super fast! See you Friday AM! Also we did 1000 total! The second 400 i timed at 13.34 with a break at 200.

  4. 1000m with 20 strokes of fs at a time sounds like a HUGE improvement in yr comfort level with OW. Presume you were breathing at a set cadence of every 2 or 3? Working on technique like catching with the elbow is best worked on when in the pool when your mind is a lot more at ease so don’t worry about not being able to improve on that today. Sighting is very very important and should be a focus area for you when we meet Fri as thats one of the reasons it makes it worth endearing the cold BS water since it cannot be practiced in a pool. 13:34 for 400m puts you at a 3:20ish pace which means yr 750m swim on Sun should be around at 25mins which ain’t that bad for a first timer!

  5. Sirshiiii….I hope you were okay that I pushed you a little…after doing 800m, just 200m more was too hard to resist…1K swim has a nice ring to it doesn’t it? 🙂 You were fab out there today…strong freestyle! I’ll try to join on Friday am as well, but it might have to be earlier…maybe ~6am? If not, no worries, you guys go ahead!

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