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Ocean Swimming

There are a number of big triathlons in South Arica where the swim is in the ocean. These are often the most daunting events for the thousands of triathletes that take part. Especially those who live inland and don’t get the opportunity to practice and get comfortable in the sea. As we head into the traditional holiday season, many of us head to the coast for some time off from work. What better time than this to get in a couple of low stress sessions in the sea to prepare for the races that are coming in the new year. Here are some of the rules and tricks that might not be that obvious to a landlubber and that will definitely help to achieve a less stressful race day and hopefully a faster and less tiring swim.

Study the route

– Most ocean triathlons are not complicated. They take the shape of a rectangle. Straight out to a buoy, turn and swim parallel to the shore to a buoy, and then turn and head straight back to shore. So not much to study there I hear you say. The problem with the sea, as opposed to a dam, is that the currents are not as predictable. The good news, is that they are generally always visible. Standing at the start on the beach, you should be able to see which way the water is moving if there is a side wash. Once we have determined this direction, we will want to start up current, so that we are not pushed to the side of the buoy and then forced to swim back against the current to get around it. Often the premature end to a weaker swimmers race.

There is no rule in triathlon that says we have to enter the water directly in-line with the buoy. As long as we go around all the buoys, we are not cutting the course. So give yourself some room to move and you can actually use the side-wash to help you.

Water flows in and out

– Standing on the beach, try to identify where the waves are breaking and where they are not. Where there is a lot of white water and breaking waves, the water is moving towards the shore. Where there is less of that, the water is flowing out to sea. Aim for that when you are swimming out. Not only will you be assisted by the flow of the water but you will not have to duck-dive too many waves.

Duck Diving

– There will always be some waves to get under. Unless the wave is completely unbroken, we should always go under it, rather than over it. Don’t leave it too late. Get down early and go deep. If the bottom is within reach, grab the sand and hold yourself in position until the wave has passed overhead. Then push off the bottom and continue swimming. Don’t fight the wave. Kicking too furiously or doing a breaststroke pull too soon, will just give the wave something to grab onto and pull you back. If it is too deep to grab the ground, hold yourself in a good, streamlined position and just wait it out.

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When you see a gap, go for it

– Waves come in sets. Sometimes we will get caught in the set and then it is just like hurdling and seems like you are going nowhere. Sadly you probably are actually going backwards but the good news is, it won’t last. So bide your time, try not to work too hard and gas yourself so that as soon as you see a gap in the waves between sets, you are ready to give it 100% to make it through the wave zone.

Buoy to buoy is easy

– Once you are around the first buoy things become much easier. Firstly salt water increases our buoyancy so we will be higher in the water and be swimming faster. Sighting is easier as well. We just need to wait till we are at the top of a swell to lift our eyes and there will be no obstructions to our sighting. Aside from that, we are swimming parallel to the beach, so every time we take a breath that way we will be able to judge our progress and direction.

Surf’s up

– Turning the last buoy and heading back to shore is where it becomes tricky again. It normally takes a bit of swimming before we hit the backline, where the waves begin to break. As you start the home stretch, look for the areas of white water when you sight. Now we want to swim towards those because that water is heading for shore. When you reach the area where the swells are forced up into breaking waves, you want to keep glancing back with every breath so that you are not taken by surprise by a wave. If you are confident in your ability to catch waves, it is sometime a good idea to ease up slightly at backline in the hopes of catching a good one in to shore. As a likely wave approaches you want to accelerate and pick up speed. Once you feel you are on the wave throw your arms forwards, tighten up your core and kick furiously. Once you are out in front of the white water you can do a single stroke from time to time and take a breath.

If things don’t go that well and you get dumped, it is not a disaster. The wave will still be tumbling you in the direction you want to go but you will have wanted to get a good breath in before it happened. Now you need to stay calm. The wave will pop you up in only a few seconds and if you are wearing a wetsuit, this will happen even quicker. Just don’t try to force it and fight the wave. That is a battle you will always lose. So just hold your breath, relax and go along for the ride.

The ocean is a fun place to swim. Treat it with respect, never fight against it and allow it to help you get where you want faster. Practice makes perfect.

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