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Andrew Words
Top Race Tips from HOWSC's elite competition swimmer - Andrew Wells

Set Your Goals

 As a first step let’s look at potential goals; A clear goal will help with motivation during training and give a focus to help determine the best events/ types of events to enter.  

The obvious target to aim for is a specific finish position either overall or within a category (non-wetsuit, gender, age-group etc).

However, in general you can never fully predict who is likely to turn up at any particular event. So, you may get swimmers maintaining 15, 14 or 13min/km and on occasions you may even glimpse that rarest of beast, the 12min/km swimmer. Mind you, it will only be a glimpse at the start, they will disappear so fast you sometimes don’t even know they have escaped. My only clear sighting was two years ago when I caught a brief glimpse of a swimmer lapping me on lap 4/10; that was the only time I have witnessed a sub two-hour 10k.

I always take a two-pronged approach to individual race targets

1) In a typical race, you are only really racing a handful (or less) of other swimmers.  Those who swim 1min/km faster will easily pull away, chasing these swimmers will just waste energy and put you at risk from your real competitors. Those 1min slower will quickly fade in your rear view and should not be seen again (unless something has gone very wrong).

2) Have multiple ways of assessing your performance

- Position
- Time
- Tactical performance against closely matched swimmers
- Handling of nature
  • Waves;
  • Currents;
  • Temperature.

      - Technical aspects such as

  • sighting/navigation
  • pacing
  • maintaining an efficient and effective stroke

      - Avoiding fitness related issues (this will also be related to pacing and other factors)

When looking back you need to try and balance out these factors to identify things to improve while maintaining a balanced assessment of the race. The relative importance of these different areas will vary from race to race depending on how the race evolves and some of the goals may become irrelevant as you will often need to focus on one outcome, be that a good time, beating a specific swimmer or in some cases simply finishing the race.

Clearly If one area is repeatedly coming up as a weakness you will then know this is the area to focus on between races.

Plan Your Campaign

 Your main goal is likely to influence the types of events you enter. If you are certain to reach you final target in one attempt then you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough but during each year allow flexibility to include events that are fun, social or just in amazing places as well as those building towards reaching your race targets.

 

The first thing to decide will be to pick your target distance. I divide events into three broad categories

  • Sprint, 1k-2k, typically a 1500m or 1 mile race
  • Middle distance 3k-6k, most often 3.8k or 5k
  • Long distance 10k+

Shorter events will largely be determined by speed with endurance becoming increasingly important as the distance increases.  At events offering multiple distances it is not unusual to see higher speeds in the longer events than the shorter ones, typically this will occur when the focus is on the longer event and the short option is seen more as an introductory option. When things get truly competitive higher speeds will clearly be seen in the shorter events.

So, what it the best distance for you?

Assuming you can swim the distance required, knowing which event is best for you will largely be a matter of experience. If you are fast from the start but tend to fade then the shorter events will be your natural area, however, if you can maintain your speed for hours then longer races should be your focus.

For either short or long distance focussed swimmers I believe middle distance events will also be of interest, building endurance for the sprinters and more speed work for long distance swimmers. But, it is hard to train to be at your best over the full range of possible distances, you will always have to place the dial between training for speed or endurance somewhere.

Now you know your main distance, the other decisions will be how many races to enter and which races. We all know that entering too many races is virtually impossible (although it can be expensive), and the number of races available means it is possible to compete over 50, 60 or even 70km in some months* (assuming swimming is your whole life; which of course it is).

* The number of events right for you will vary from person to person based on event type, technique, fitness etc. so do listen to your body and don’t go too crazy until you know how things work for you.

Most of the swim calendar for the following year will be published by the Christmas/new year period so it is a good time to go plan-out your season. However, do be aware that there are a small number of events that will sell out very quickly; if these are key events for you, you may need to enter immediately when they open.

You will find that it will be impossible to get to peak readiness at every event throughout the season, therefore some should be treated as places to build experience and try out new tactics and skills ready for the keys events. A packed race schedule does not mean you should not train in-between, for instance lots of long races with reduced training will result in a drop off in top speed.

When picking events, it’s often worth examining previous results for each event to check if it’s a big event where there are likely to be lots of fast swimmers or possibly something much smaller. Fast swimmers may help pull you to a better time but will tend to result in lower finishing positions.

Allowing other factors to vary, such as race setting (lake vs river vs sea) can help increase the variety and help you build new skills without the need to alter the basic training and swim fitness that you have built up.

The Big Suits vs Skins Thing

Wetsuit and skins swimming are different experiences, although I do feel the differences are overblown in some quarters. There is no doubt that wearing a wetsuit is faster, for me this difference is around 1min/km. This is quite a lot when you think of the swimmers you are racing against, but is small compared to the range of speeds you see across the competitors in a typical race (say 13min/km to 30min/km). A wetsuit will also provide additional insulation, which is useful at times, although for most summer events (maybe not the rest of the year), the water temperature will be in the 18-20C range (despite warnings otherwise) and in most cases, this will not result in performance issues for an acclimatised skins swimmer.

Personally, I like to mix things around to a certain extent, but to maximise performance you do need to get used to the small differences in body position etc. Maybe do one month mostly skins then another mostly suited (schedule based on key races)

Always check the permissible options when entering a race (especially if you aren’t comfortable in both). For races where both options are available you will usually find that around 80%+ of competitors will race in a suit. Results are usually split into separate categories and often, but not always, there are separate prizes.

In summary, you are only in an equal race against those in the same category (skins vs skins or suit vs suit) but there is no reason we can’t all share the same events. Just bear in mind that if you finish a race in a suit and there is a skins swimmer on your toes they probably are a faster swimmer than you, however if the gap is large this may not be the case (wetsuit swimmers don’t suddenly sink to the bottom and drown when they take their suits off).

Race-day

Pre-race

Race day is here, you’ve had an early night (preferably somewhere close to the race), everything is packed and ready to go and you’re up with plenty of time to spare (or at least that’s the plan!); admittedly the early starts can make this tricky.

Things it is best not to forget…

  • Trunks / Costume (I tend to wear mine to the race, if you do the same remember to bring some underwear for after)
  • Wetsuit (if needed)
  • Goggles
  • Spare hat (in case)
  • Spare goggles
  • Drinks/Food
  • Towel
  • Lube (if needed)

Speaking of Lube, I have always found that Vaseline does work better than Glide but go with whatever is best for you. If you are swimming regularly you will know the spots that rub (hopefully not too many). For me it’s basically: wetsuit, just around the neck; skins, usually none but if longer maybe a little in the armpits. However, in salt water this all goes out the window; rubbing will be 10x worse and you will need to be much more liberal; I try and avoid a wetsuit in salt water, it is so easy for you skin to be shredded.

Make sure you have time to eat a decent breakfast to fuel you through the race and that you have plenty more food and fluids for later. Aim to arrive at the event with time to spare so that you can check in without rushing, check you know when and where the briefing is and that you have been handed the relevant stuff (hat, timing chip etc).

PS we all know swim hats are evil, always trying to escape, and for events you nearly always must wear the one provided rather than the one you have managed to tame. Two hats could be an option but for me that is too hot. If you do experience hat issues during the race try and remain calm, an adjustment only takes a few seconds so you can usually stick with your group. The nuclear option is to give up on it and slip it down the front of your suit, but this does run the risk of being stopped and handed a new one. Goggles on the other hand, are you friend and should be nurtured. Make sure you have the right tension, not too tight for longer swims (unless there are dives) and keep topping up the anti-fog. I have found that the two best methods that tend to work are:

  1. The day before rub shampoo on the inside of the goggle then rinse out thoroughly. Allow to dry with the googles looking upward.
  2. Immediately before the race lick around the inside of your goggles (maybe goggles are more than friends), two second dip in the water and ready to go.

Do get prescription goggles if needed, they are not expensive and if you can’t see the buoys (which can be very spread out) you will go off line.

After registration, check out the course (or part of the course visible to you). Knowing details of the race, particularly in the run up to the finish are of huge benefit when deciding when to sprint and pick the best line at the end of the race.

This is also a good time to scan the opposition for known rivals, and meet up with swim race friends. Note that it is very hard to pick out fast swimmers from the pack, they range in age from teenagers to competitors in their 50s and from skinny to “well insulated”. So, if you see athletic looking swimmers talking confidently, they may be fast but equally they may just be confident of finishing, beating their mate or having a good time; everyone’s goals will be different. Also use this time to snack and make sure you are fully topped up with fluids (warning, queues for the bathroom can get rather long).

Finish getting ready and it’s briefing time, of course we have all read the info emailed out previously haven’t we (well you should have), but do make sure you pay attention. You only need to ignore the briefer when they say something like “it’s not a race, it’s a timed event”, we know better!

The key things you need to know are the course and the start and end locations/ procedure. This includes how much warm up (if any), where to line up, eliminate any doubts about the course and identify any strange features, such as buoy on the right when turning left (ie you can cut the corner but be careful not to beach yourself). Finally, know where the timing actually stops (this will often be past the water line) and longer races the location of feed stops is also important (more on that later). If unsure ask a question.

In the water

Warm up time and unless the water is cold (winter style cold not “Aaah! 17 that’s freezing type cold”), its generally best to make the most of this period and get in a decent warm-up. I find that around 100-200m at moderate pace is enough to get the heart beating and allow you to get your breathing sorted. There is nothing worse than stating a race cold, rushing the first 150m as the adrenalin flows then your breathing getting all in a mess. Develop a routine that works for you, but remember the time is often short and always make sure you have enough time to line up at the start. Often, the start is shortly after the final swimmers enter the water, so it’s wise to aim to be amongst the first in. If you expect the time to be very short, up the tempo of the warm-up. A shortened warm-up could be 20m of over-kicking, it gets the heart going and the splash is impressive.

In the line-up try and position yourself based on your speed relative to the rest of the pack. As competitive swimmers, we want to be at the front at the closest point to the first buoy, and this is where we should be PROVIDING WE ARE FAST ENOUGH. Going to the front then being swum over by the whole field won’t be a good start to your day. Pick a spot appropriate for your speed relative to the expected standard of the other swimmers and where possible try and find a little space.

BANG, off everyone goes, don’t swim slowly but don’t rush, you want to find your correct place without getting too carried away and blowing your race pacing; going out too fast and burning out will hurt you in the long run.  For me the key to pacing is getting the right stroke rate, and the best way to control this is through music. By finding a song (preferably one you like) with the correct BPM you can control your speed over the crucial first few hundred as the field spreads out.

This period will also be the most congested and some contact is likely, although usually minor. Despite the stories that sometimes circulate, I have never experienced any deliberate violence or sabotage. Ignore the maelstrom to the best of your ability and focus on finding your way into some space.

Taking an aside in to the world of music, for me most races will be dominated by 3 songs. One used to control cruise speed both at the beginning of the race and as a check when needed at later stages. The second is a slightly higher BPM to help that acceleration before a flat-out sprint, this effectively gives the highest speed you should attempt before going into the red in the final sprint. The third tune is the one my brain has picked (through some mysterious mechanism) to be the soundtrack for today’s race. By concentrating you can replace it for a few minutes, but it keeps coming back. For key races, you might want to ensure this song has the correct BMP (they don’t always), the only way I know to do this is to select a song in advance then listen to in on repeat all the way to race (sometimes works but doesn’t always); for the next race, my brain will pick something (after hours of a single track it’s understandable your brain wants something else).

Once the field is established look around (without stopping of course), check out the opposition and decide how to beat them. This is a swim race so it will primarily be settled in the water, but in many longer races two other wildcards come into play; feed stops and run sections (eg around locks).

For races in the long category, it will be faster for most people to have at least one feed stop during the race and the gains from refuelling will outweigh the time lost. However, this is often a source of wasted time. Longer races will always provide food stops (with food provided and often the chance to leave your own) and while these can be well sited (eg on a run section), in some races they require a large detour (this isn’t always obvious in advance).

For a competitive swimmer my advice is, where possible reduce the number of stops, for a 10k race one stop is usually sufficient, but for 15k I would probably take three stops. Yes, the body does hold huge amounts of energy as fat (some of us more than others) but the release rate is slow, so once you used all the other fuel you will be much slower. On hot days fluid intake is equally important, make sure you had plenty before the race and take on more at the stops if required, again replenishment gets more important as the race distance increases.

Going back to the more typical 10k distance, taking 1 stop when others take two can make all the difference (but if you can take on food without losing any time, eg on run sections then greater frequency will be beneficial). One way to make big saving is to avoid the official food stops, as well as diverting off line you sometimes have to wait to be handed food, are blocked by others “taking a breather” or can’t find things you left behind. Carrying your food with you avoids all these issues. This is typically achieved by slipping a few gels up the sleeve of your wetsuit (sorry skins swimmers this may not be something easy for you to replicate). Typically, I take two gels with me during a 10k race and take them both in a single stop around 60% through. It only takes a few seconds of treading water to take one, open, drink and discard the rubbish down the front of you suit (DON’T LITTER!), it’s even faster on land. If you are swimming in a bunch you should only loose 20m so have a good chance of quickly getting back onto the group effectively giving you a free stop. 

Where there are sections on land there is a simple rule for competitive swimmers. Run. I’m always stunned by how many swimmers (and here I mean fast swimmers) get out ahead of you then stand around, dawdle and generally waste loads of time; It’s a race (even when it’s not). When allowed (plan ahead), wear swim socks for these races, it’s much more pleasant than bare foot and protects your feet from stones gravel etc.  If not allowed (or you have forgotten them) RUN ANYWAY; events have medics to patch up your feet, help break up their boredom. This is especially true of any section, no matter how short, between the edge of the water and the finish line. Unless you are 100% sure there were no swimmers near you approaching the line, this should be a sprint.

Now, let’s get back to the water, on some occasions you just end up on your own and need to pace yourself to the end. In these situations, check you stroke rate, try and keep you focus on sighting and maintain your speed as efficiently as possible. You may want to check behind once or twice (over the shoulder at a turn or 1 stroke of backstroke) but don’t overdo it. Yes, you should be a bit worried that someone may catch you, but if you’re going well you could also catch a swimmer ahead who has got their pacing wrong. Stay aware, stick to your planned pace (including sprint finish) and only deviate when you need to react.

However, in most races, after the start you will look around and identify your rivals for the day, sometimes one, other times two or three.

Assess your rivals, you are going to beat them, but how (obviously this is always true, but theoretically there could be a time when someone is getting away so let’s discuss that too); ask yourself:

a.       do they swim straight (good to follow);

b.       do they have a strong kick (also good for drafting, as is wearing a tow float);

c.       What is their stroke rate (smooth vs swinger), I tend to think that for swimmers with a similar cruise speed, those with a lower stroke rate typically have a higher sprint speed (more scope for increasing stroke rate) but maybe that’s just my prejudice;

d.       Is the group travelling at the correct speed, when drafting, assessing your speed is tricky, test by going wide for 20m.

If the pace is too slow, then often it will be best to try and leave the group behind, you may leave them all or possibly just one or two. Don’t go too hard when making this type of move (recovery once you have been in the red is not quick) so if no-one is dropped rethink things.

If the speed is right the next decision is lead or draft. Drafting is nearly always the answer given the choice, it does save energy so…

  • Draft where there is no advantage in leading.
  • If you are leading your group early on and someone wants to go ahead, let them take the lead and slot in behind.
  • When fighting over feet (drafting spot), swim very close alongside others, then if they drift a little off line you can then grab their spot in the draft zone.
  • The best position will be on the feet of the group leader (groups can break up so best to be towards the front).
  • Do check the group is going in the right direction, if off-line, is taking the straight-line path a greater saving than maintaining the tow?
  • Hopefully the group leader will put in the effort needed to drop the others and then be so exhausted that you zoom past for the win, but this won’t always be the case. Continue to assess the pace and tactical situation, you may need to take over at some point.

However leading does have some advantages:

  • You have around a 2m lead, that can be enough to make a difference in a sprint.
  • Going around the buoys you can take the inside line (eliminating any overlaps)
  • If someone wants to overtake, you can sometime force them to pass on the side of your choosing by drifting slightly offline (ensure they will be on the outside of the final corner)
  • Assuming your group has a reasonable buffer, you can deliberately slow down to preserve your sprint. I typically do this by almost stopping my kick, this reducing the drafting effect for those behind while having a minimal effect on my swim efficiency.

Note that on a course with very closely packed buoys it can become very hard to pass a similarly paced swimmer, because at every buoy you effectively reset to be behind their feet. When this occurs, it is best to lead, so overtake if possible, even if you need to make a move earlier than normal (eg they have gone the slightly longer side of a backmarker being lapped).

Whether leading or drafting, if someone tries to escape you need to react quickly. Sometimes a 5m gap is all that is needed to break the tow (and your spirits) and allow them to slowly pull away. I find the “I’ll just maintain the gap then pull them back in later” approach rarely works. If you can go with them, If not, make the decision to focus on the rest of the competitors (and maybe wish that they run out of steam later)

Entering the last phase of the race, positioning is important, try to gradually move forward in the group, aim to be on the inside of the final bend and get ready to react if necessary. Then the wait begins.

The main thought on everyone’s mind will be when will the sprint start, this will often depend on assessments of the other swimmer(s) and energy levels. For me the number one rule of sprint finishes is…     don’t slow down!

Maybe that sound obvious, I’m not saying don’t slow from the pace up to that point, I mean when you make the decision to enter the final sprint you need to be able to maintain it to the end; the only change of speed should be a further acceleration. spatial awareness can be limited, so assume they are right there and keep going (a minute of pain is worth it if you win). Remember to include an on-land sprint if the finish is out of the water and don’t look around until after you have crossed the line.

If someone is making a move earlier than you want, yes you should react and up the pace but also stick to your judgement. Don’t go beyond the speed you can maintain to the end. If they can maintain a higher speed then hats off to them, if not catch them when they blow up. Typically, the speed gradually ramps up to the end, but if you do reach the point when you can sprint flat out to the end you can make that decisive move.

Reflection

So, plenty to think about during the race/ have in your pre-race plan, lots that can go well and lots you can work on in the future. The dream outcome is often to beat a swimmer who is clearly faster than you. It can be done, because being a competitive swimmer is about more than simply being a good swimmer.  Basic swimming skills are important, but so is the wider package of skill and tactics. The areas where the highest proportion of people come up short are feed stops and the out of water sections (as discussed earlier). Getting these small things right may save seconds or may save a minute but that can be enough. In hindsight gaps sizes rarely matter, instead I still remember the time when the swimmer in front tripped 1m short of the line and I skipped past to victory or when the smallest wobble at the end of a 10k meant, despite sharing a time, I knew I crossed the line half a meter behind my competitor.

So that’s it for the day, race over, time to chat with follow competitors, reflect on how things went and eat everything in sight as you wait for the remainder of the field to finish. Then finally time to collect you reward/ watch others collect theirs.

 

 Momentos will come in a verity of forms the most common being

  • Finishers medal (around 80% of races)
  • Trophy for winners or top 3 (around 40% of races)
  • Finishers T-Shirt (around 25% of races)
  • Swim equipment for winners (around 10% of races)
  • Certificate (around 10% of races)
  • Finishers mug (around 5% of races)
  • Photo with Olympic swimmers (around 5% of races)
  • Cash (1% of races)

 

So that’s it Simples.

Or maybe not, every race is different and, you still have to train to build technique, speed and endurance and that’s a whole other thing…


AS YOU'RE HERE: The HOWSC website is maintained and run by HOWSC members and relies on voluntary contribtutions.  Do you have something you'd like to share?  Maybe reflections on a recent swim, tales of adventures in far flung places, an account of your watery accomplishments? Photographs, videos, poetry, prose, art and more will all be gratefully received and published on the website for all to admire.  Contact Mark Reed to discuss or submit your contribution.  We look forward to hearing from you.
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