The Drills

  • Try these drills in one of the Lidos where you get more distance and no lane ropes.
  • Swim in groups of 3 or 4 in diamond formation. The aim is to keep the group together by swimming in close formation. The back man should be touching the feet of the front man, if not the front man slows. The side men need to keep track of where the front man is and speed up or slow accordingly. Swap the lead at turn around. This could also be done in pairs.
  • Ducking drill!
  • Practice swimming for 6 to 8 strokes without taking a breath, that way you will know, even if you get pushed under that you have no problem geting back into your stride.
  • Start drill
  • Get everyone in the deepend treading water, then tell them to sprint to the other end. With 12 people in a lane made for 6 this soon simulates the open water starts, in a safe atmosphere.
  • First buoy drill
  • Swim the first 200m of a 500m repeat hard then drop into race pace.


Bunch Start Swimming

One of our egroup's most popular discussions has been that of how to make the best of the bunch swim. It's easy to advise poorer swimmers to stay out of the fray but if you rely on the swim to keep you in the race then what then?

That discussion is recreated here in edited form. Thanks to all contributors both quoted here and on the egroup.Triathlon Open Water Swimming

From: Helen Taylor

I just competed in my second triathlon and first open water swim. I was pleased with my time but a bit disappointed with my swim. I'm a reasonable swimmer and have been practicing in my wetsuit over more than 750m but when it came to it, the shear volume of people and crowded conditions freaked me out a bit and I ended up doing half my swim in breaststroke until it all settled down a bit when I could finally relax, breath and feel confident to move in crawl. Now I've entered my first Olympic distance and am panicking a bit about the open water swim. Is this something that just comes with competition experience or is there anything you can do to practice swimming in groups of people??! I'd really, really appreciate any advice on this as I don't want it to become my 'bogey' phase – I love swimming!

A number of people wrote in with encouragement that things will get easier...

From: Susan Chamberlain

I used to start at the back and ended up swimming round lots of swimmers, my swim time was really slow, I now stand in the front and run like crazy into the water and let the rest of the swimmers swim round me, my run times have improved a lot. If someone gets too close to your feet kick really hard, If someone gets close to your side, lift those elbows, swim with agression. Plus as Robin Brew said at one of his talks, just slightly push the chap on your left or right if they are swimming over you. You’ll find people start to swim round you if they see you don’t take any nonsense.

From: Neil Melville

Don't let the swim put you off, you really get to enjoy the fray, and until you do, start at the back or sides.The rules of pack swimming are different to the swimming pool – you expect to get your feet touched and if you don't stop when you get grabbed then people have to swim round you not over you.

From: Andrea Newton

Make sure you get yourself in a good position on the starting line up. Don't position yourself in the middle of the bunch as you are likely to get bashed around a lot! I wasn't prepared for this. I started in the middle of the pack as I thought this would be the best place. I found that I was stuck in a really bad position from the start and I couldn't get out of it as I was surrounded by bodies until very near the end of the swim. For strong swimmers it is particularly important to get yourself in a good position from the off. Otherwise you aren't able to take advantage of your strength in the water. For my second race, I started off on the outside edge of the pack. I was prepared to get stuck in with some elbows if needed. I found I was able to swim at my own pace much more easily as I had space to swim round anyone in the way. Most importantly, I didn't suffer from being bashed about as much. The result was a much quicker time – 22 mins 53 as opposed to 26 mins 30.

From: Richard Melik

Try to stay out to the side of the main group where possible, look for some clearer water and then try and relax into a steady front crawl. It may mean swimming a slightly longer way round the course but will make for a much more relaxed swim. As you get more confident in open water you can move into the middle and gauge the pace of those around you. If you find a group of similar paced or slightly faster swimmers then get drafting! yesterday was only my fourth open water swim but I had the confidence to get involved in the scrum for the first time and actually really enjoyed it.

From: Brian Welsh

I would say what you need more than anything is to get some open water swimming in with lots of people, so that you can get used to the buffeting. In practice it really only lasts about 100m apart from in very, very packed races. (Brian offered a range of drills. See right)

Brian Tennant faced particular problems with a race the size of London...

From: Brian Tennant

Swim start I was kind of expecting the feeding frenzy start, having watched the earlier races. I'd tried to position myself on the outer left side of the course as I thought that this side seemed a bit quieter in previous races and somewhere in the middle as I didn't want to start right at the back. But during the pre start holding as more people piled in I got pushed further into the crowded bit.

Advice was "In practice it really only lasts about 100m apart from in very, very packed races."

London is a pretty packed race but I was expecting the congestion to spread out when people found their pace/ place, but this didn't happen at all. I found space to swim for about 400m of the whole race (just after halfway) when I got myself to the outside of the race course on one leg – but after the next buoy I was back in with many people again. Don't know if there were lots of people swimming at my pace (25.15) but I really thought it would be more spaced out. It didn't bother me too much, over all, and I managed to curb the panic attacks I was expecting, but hopefully it will be easier next time having experienced it before.

Adrian Jones answered some of Brian's specific questions...

Q: How fast do you think you need to be for the "start at the front and go out hard " method to work?

A: A sub 22 min for 1500m would be mixing it at the front but the principle can work for anyone. The idea is to get on someone's feet who is slightly faster than you but the draft effect allows you to swim at their pace.

Q: How much does mixing it up with the masses getting the big draft effect and swimming in wetsuits effect your times.

A: Try it in a pool with a friend – swimming tight on someone's toes gives an incredible pull, multiply this by dozens and the effect is huge. The extra buoyancy of wetsuits also helps 'sinkers' – people who are not very horizontal when swimming. Slower swimmers get a greater gain from the effect.

Adrian had further advice...

Swimming in mass start open water swims is rough for everyone... through experience you can fight off those demons.

Start position should be thought about pre-race. Fast off-the-front swimmers will go for shortest course starting at the front. They'll swim hard for a few 100m to get a good position then drop into their rhythm for the rest of it, usually drafting off someone's feet. On the other extreme a back marker swimmer should start way wide or at the back.

Most of us are somewhere between these two. Some of us don't get phased by the kicks & punches (all accidental!) and can mix it up with the masses getting the big draft effect. Others can have panic attacks, either stopping (not a good idea) & getting swum over or breast stroking and kicking others in nasty places adding to the overcrowding problem. If you are happy with the brawl get an aggressive start position & benefit form the huge draft. If you are shaken by it all start wide & work across to the swim line of the buoy. Sometimes swimming a little further by starting wide or more towards the back can minimize the initial bashing.

Practising swimming close/on/over others in training is a good way to get 'familiar' with this environment. Also learning to relax will help no end. If you found yourself surrounded by slower swimmers you should work on being able to swim fairly hard at the start (relative to the race distance) then dropping the effort down after you've found your position. This is a conditioning thing you can practise in training... swim first 200m of a 500m repeat hard then drop into race pace remembering it's primarily a technique sport & that should be the main focus for the main part of the swim.

Drafting in the swim is a must – why bother expending more energy when someone else can pull you along? Again this should be practised & you can get a draft effect.

Sighting should also be practised in the pool, no point in swimming 1800m for a 1500m course! Terry Laughlin's Total Immersion book Swimming for Triathletes has a whole section on tri OW swim tips.

If you're feeling very stressed out there – laugh or smile & you'll soon get it all back into perspective... works a treat! Start position, gaining experience & learning to relax are the key.