An introduction to open water swimming with Dan Bullock from Swim For Tri

Posted in swimming on November 2, 2012

Dan Bullock has been coaching since 1990 and set up Swim For Tri in 2003. He has helped thousands to get fit and fast for adventures from their first novice triathlon to the Channel. Dan’s accolades include being National Masters Swim Champion (Pool & Openwater 2008-12), a British Age Group Record Holder (800m), European & World Masters Medallist and he has finished several Iron Man races. Recently, he wrote British Swimming’s first Open Water (OW) Continuing Professional Development module (CPD).

We asked Dan a few questions about getting into open water, training and keeping motivated over the winter months.

I enjoy pool swimming, but want to make the transition into open water. Where do I start?

OW is a very different discipline to pool-based swimming. Some might describe OW racing as submerged cage fighting, in light of the group starts which can feel crowded and aggressive.

Getting crowded heading out to the start of a race

Like most activities the more you train and prepare, the more you will be able to cope with situations that might upset you. The fitter and more confident you become in OW, the more you will enjoy race day. I set up SFT to offer swim technique lessons to triathletes. We realised early on that unless we took our swimmers outdoors, they were missing a key part in their preparation.

If your swimming is not strong then you need to build good technique first before focusing on stamina or endurance. The density of water punishes inaccurate movements, causing you to fatigue sooner. I have known 2hr 40 marathon runners feel unfit in the water in just a few lengths due to not using the correct muscle groups to create the correct propulsive movements. Swimming can be quite cruel in that hours of inaccurate practice will yield few benefits whereas going for any kind of run or bike ride will deliver some benefits.

What equipment do I need?

Depending on where and when you start, you will need at least: a swim hat, goggles, a pair of trunks or swim suit and a wetsuit. Due to the buoyancy afforded in the wetsuit, most races insist on them. They also offer tremendous warmth so effectively lengthen our race season.

If you are racing early in the year (generally OW racing starts from May onwards) and need to start training early, a neoprene hat, boots and gloves can help with the cold. However, boots and gloves can also make your swimming feel clumsy. Outdoor (unheated) lidos can be a great place for early training in your wetsuit and to help you acclimatise.

What’s the ideal front crawl (FC) technique for OW?

This is a vast subject.  Here’s a clip to demonstrate and focuses on the ‘Catch’ element of the stroke.

A major fault of adults improving their swimming later in life is how they push water down to the bottom of the pool with a straight arm. They don’t catch and hold any water. This happens especially when breathing, the straight arm push down acts to stabilise the head. Rather than pivot at the shoulder and push water straight down you should try to pivot at the elbow, point the fingertips downwards and use the hand and forearm to push water back towards the wall you are swimming away from.

Racing season is over. It’s tempting to go into hibernation. Do you have tips on keeping motivated during the winter?

Join a tri team or a masters club. Having a coach will mean you have a plan in the pool and the social aspect of club swimming will help with the winter drudgery that swimming alone can become.

Set goals and get some races entered. As the winter weather and dark nights come in it is easy to get second thoughts, but a little ‘race looming’ pressure will help you get to the pool. Also contemplate some pool based races in the off season. They are no longer the preserve of masters swimmers. triathletes and OW swimmers are starting to appear in the start lists.

Is there any cross training I can do that will benefit my swimming?

There is no real replacement to just getting into the water, feeling the coordination of your arms and legs, body rotation and breathing. You might even have to overcome anxiety about putting your face in the water. High levels of general fitness from other sports will not help if the swim movements you perform are not helping you move economically and efficiently in the water.

There is a pilates movement called ‘The Swimmer’ that will help you get a feel for a good FC leg kick. There’s also some specific swim equipment you can purchase, such as the VASA swim bench and Stretchcordz. But good swim technique needs to be in place before these can help your swim fitness.

Dan coaching

I have a really busy job, how many times a week do I need to train in order to make a real difference?

Unfortunately a few lessons are not going to solve all the issues. Consider swimming like learning a language. The more you do, the better you become.

I had a pilot almost scream at me that he learned to fly quicker than the rate of progress his swimming made. This did not surprise me. If you have been swimming incorrectly for many years, there can be a lot of unlearning to do, which can slow the process.

The more frequently you train, the greater the improvement and the more you will enjoy and do it. Once a week, no matter how long the session, will, unfortunately, leave 6 days of unlearning from that one session and be difficult to build upon in the next session.

How was your first OW race?

My first OW swim was the London Tri back in the 90s and I was quite blasé regarding my preparation assuming I would ‘just swim it’.

This seemed logical as I was an experienced swimmer, what could I possibly have to worry about? Keeping straight, sighting, the rugby scrum at the start, lack of clarity and the cooler temperature were just a few things! I wish I’d had the opportunity to practice in open water ahead of race day.