Beginners' guide to swim events

When you signed up for your first swim event, it felt like aeons away. But now the big day's approaching and your stomach's full of butterflies, what can you do to prepare? From triathlon to distance swim, here's a practical guide to outdoor swimming events.

Entering a swim event is a great way to celebrate your outdoor swimming or work towards a goal. While some events are distinctly competitive, others are celebrations of outdoor swimming where the emphasis is on enjoyment. And many events help raise money and awareness of open water swimming.


Types of event

Events fall into two categories: swim events and multi-discipline events where you also run and/or cycle. Swimming events tend to attract swimmers (obviously!), but for a fair portion of those taking part in triathlon and aquathlon, swimming is their weakest discipline.


Triathlon

Swim then bike then run. You can choose from various distances (these may vary):

  • Super sprint: 400m (swim), 10km (bike), 2.5km (run)

  • Sprint: 750m (swim), 20km (bike), 5km (run)

  • Standard or Olympic: 1500m (swim), 40km (bike), 10km (run)

  • Half-Ironman: 1.9km (swim), 90km (bike), 21km (run)

  • Ironman: 3.8km (swim), 180km (bike), 42km (run)


Aquathlon

Swim then run:

  • Sprint/pool: 400 or 500m (swim), 2.5km (run)

  • Open water: 750m (swim), 5km (run)

  • Long distance: 1.5km (swim), 10km (run)

Open water swim

This is any swim in river, lake or sea and can range in distance from one kilometre to anything longer than 10km, which is considered a marathon in swimming terms.


Age categories

Most events are split into age categories. These vary depending on the organiser. For example, many multi-discipline events follow British Triathlon age groups, while smaller swimming events might simply split you into 'open' and 'senior' classes, which is usually aged 40+. You'll usually swim together, but your time will be recorded under your age and sex class.


Wetsuit rules

Most events follow guidance by FINA, the governing organisation for swimming. However, some events state that wetsuits aren't allowed, at some you have a choice, and some allow non-wetsuit swimmers providing they apply for permission beforehand. It's worth doing your research and make sure that you train in whatever you'll be wearing for your swim.


Technique

"I've done the distance in the pool," are the words that make my heart sink. Outdoor swimming and pool swimming are not the same. Whatever you do, it is imperative that you train in open water before your event. Even the most confident, competent swimmers can have an event ruined for them because they've not trained outdoors.


Open water swimmers use different technique to pool swimmers. You need to be able to breathe to both sides, for example, so that you can choose to breathe away from chop or waves. You need to be able to 'sight', which means lifting your eyes to see where you're heading. If you can get lessons, do. Otherwise, here are some simple tips:


Breathing

Lots of open water swimmers find that the cold, murky water and perhaps tightness of their wetsuit makes them feel short of breath. The key is to keep your breathing relaxed, natural and regular. Gently exhale all the time your face is in the water, and then take a normal-sized inhalation. Gasping in a massive lung-full will make you hyperventilate, and holding your breath will cause your muscles to fatigue.


Eyes down

There is nothing to be gained from lifting your eyes: you won't be able to see where you're going. Try to keep your spine neutral, eyes looking straight down. Because your lungs are the most buoyant part of your body, a low head position will counter 'sinky legs'. You'll also have a more streamlined body position and a neutral spine means less strain on your body, especially over long distances.


Rock and roll

Rotating from the hips is magic for your stroke. It means you almost lie on your side to breath thus interrupting your stroke less and giving you more space to breathe: if there's chop or waves, you can turn your head a bit further to breathe towards the sky. Rotation also gives you a stronger pull with your arms.


Arms and legs

In freestyle, your arms do 85-90% of the propulsion. The main correction is stopping crossing the arms over in front of you, and hands entering the water thumb first. Your hands should enter the water flat and shoulder-width apart. If you've got a good, low head-position, you don't really need to kick at all, which is handy if you're about to cycle or run. But if you do kick, make sure the power comes from your bottom not your knees.


Training

Train in the kit you're going to wear for the event. Get used to your wetsuit. Make sure your goggles don't leak and that you can see through them. Also train in the water you're going to swim in. Salt water and fresh water are very different. If you're swimming through waves, get used to that.


Food and drink

It's also really important to think about energy and hydration. Your training swims are the time to test out what to eat and when, and if you're doing a distance swim, test out different energy boosters. I use gels tucked into the sleeves or legs of my wetsuit, but they upset some people's stomachs and this isn't something you want to discover while swimming your event! Hydration is also critical; will you be able to drink during your event?


Go the distance

Build up to your distance a couple of weeks before your event and then ease off. When I swam the Dart 10k, I swam 500m further every week until I got to 8km (it's a tidal-assisted swim, so that was an adequate distance for training purposes) two weeks before the event. For multi-discipline events, practise the transition too.


Swim with friends

If you can practise swimming close to other people, do. For lots of swimmers, this is the thing that unsettles them when it comes to the event. Together, you can practise starting your race in deep water, overtaking each other or just swimming next to somebody else.


The big day

So, the day of your event arrives. Expect to feel nervous: the adrenaline helps, so go with it! Make sure you know where to go, where you're going to park and how to register, and leave yourself plenty of time: arriving in a rush will stress you out! Here are some other tips:

  • Eat breakfast: a slow-burning energy release from complex carbs will set you up, just make sure that it doesn't sit too heavy on your stomach

  • Drink plenty of fluids: a mix of water and an isotopic sports drink will keep you hydrated and help guard against cramp

  • Have something sweet shortly before you start for a quick energy boost

  • Organise your stuff: make sure you pack everything you don't need during the swim and put it where you'll be able to collect it at the end of your swim

  • Think about your start position: if you're fast and competitive, head to the front of the pack while slower swimmers should start near the back

  • Allow yourself time to settle: expect to feel breathless for the first couple of minutes. Give yourself and the pack time to settle and spread out and then find your place and rhythm

  • Breathe and enjoy: once you're in your rhythm, enjoy your swim. You might be pushing yourself and swimming fast or just sauntering along

  • Be wary of false finishes: the finish line always looks closer than it is. When you spot it in the distance, just keep swimming, keep your head down and don't get disheartened

  • Kick for the last 200m: no matter what your distance, if you kick for the final five minutes or so, you'll be less dizzy when you get out.

After your event

All that training, all that build up and it's all over in a flash! Even Channel swimmers say that it's over more quickly than they expect because you kind of lose sense of time when you're swimming. Providing you've done the training, you should be more than prepared. Remember that swimming outdoors is all about mind over matter: training gives you the confidence that you can do it as much as it gives you the physical ability.


Good luck!


The start of Clevedon Aquathlon 2018