Hit The Open Water: A New Yorker’s Guide to Swimming’s Growing Sport

Guest submission by Jake Bright

NEW YORK, New York, January 4. "WOULD you happen to know the way to the yacht club?" I yell up to the fishing boat. It's my first open water swim race and I've somehow managed to lose the pack, course, and kayak guides on a summer morning in the Long Island Sound. Not exactly the foray I planned into one of swimming's fastest growing and most challenging sports. Making its debut as an Olympic event in 2008, open water swimming is not just for the elite. In large and small bodies of water globally, thousands of swimmers of varied ability and age are sighting for landmarks, braving flailing arms and feet, and fending off jelly fish while navigating long distances.

In some ways, open water swimming is swimming's equivalent to the popular road running circuit. This includes the pre-event spaghetti dinners, post-race T-shirts, goodie bags, and camaraderie.

The similarities to road running narrow there, as open water swimming is a distinctly different sport. There's a higher element of danger (in New York, we are often racing in strong currents and commercial waterways) and greater importance on technique and tactics.

Parallel to the endurance challenge, the activity requires submerged humans to navigate water bodies as their own engine, compass, and rudder. As a total body, low impact exercise, open water swimming also allows for greater health benefits and the opportunity for endurance athletes to remain competitive longer. It's not uncommon to see an age spread of 19 to 45 across top 10 finishers in major races.

As for my track to the open water, I got into fitness swimming during college after a sports injury curtailed my competitive distance running. I first became aware of open water swimming while searching for an off-season fitness activity to supplement my winter hobby, alpine ski racing. Initially finding very little instructional resources on the sport, I decided to give it a try, training for and completing my first 5K in 2007.

For those looking to chart their own path in the open water, I thought I'd summarize advice on finding events, structuring training, and vital race day tips gathered from my own three-year progression from a neophyte lost in a harbor to a consistent mid-packer moving up the ranks.

Committing your name to an event is the best step to following through on your open water aspirations. A valuable resource is U.S. Masters Swimming's long distance calendar. Events are broken down conveniently by region and club: http://www.usms.org/longdist/.

For those wishing to weave some altruism into Swimming, Swim Across America allows one to compete while raising money to fight cancer: http://www.swimacrossamerica.org/.

If you are looking to add some Big Apple scenery to your open water experience, check out NYC Swim. It is one of the most active schedules in the country, including events around landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge: http://www.nycswim.org/. And yes, the water around Manhattan is cleared for swimming. I've endured all the jokes about swimming in the Hudson, i.e., glowing skin, limbs falling off, or green hair. After three years as a regular NYC Swim participant I can report I've only gotten healthier as a result.

Once you've settled on a race, you can begin preparation. Below I offer my own "Cliff's Notes" on the three important Ts: Training, Technique, and Tactics.

With limited time as a busy young professional, I've learned to be as specific and effective with my training as possible. In the simplest terms, I put together a regime that includes a combination of three types of workouts:
1) Base work and longer distance swims (focus on moderate pace, good technique and increasing overall distance)
2) Speed work (intervals and repeats at high intensity levels); and
3) Technique (exercises and drills to improve form and increase efficiency)

Ever view an efficient, moderately paced swimmer in the pool effortlessly passing someone using two times the energy and stroke turnover? Imagine this scenario through several miles of open water, and you'll understand why technique is such an important component of open water training. One must absolutely focus on improving technique and efficiency to become a good open water swimmer. It comes down to some simple math and physics. Submerged in water, roughly 900 times thicker than air, swimmers have a large amount of weight and drag on their bodies and much lower energy efficiency rates than runners or cyclists. Increased output channeled through poor technique leads to wasted energy and diminishing returns. Increasing mechanical efficiency by even a small percentage can produce a 20 fold or more increase in a swimmer's capacity.

It's difficult to create improvement without adding some formal instruction on technique including video analysis. I suggest two things. First, look at some of the professional instructional programs out there. The one that's been most useful to me is Total Immersion Swimming. TIS breaks stroke efficiency down to its core components through drills and helps swimmers assemble them into renewed form. TIS has DVDs (I use these and have friends video me to compare), courses, and certified personal instructors for private lessons throughout the U.S. I often see program founder and head coach Terry Laughlin in the finish area of our Manhattan Island Foundation races, proving he's a practitioner of what TIS teaches.

Second, integrate technique oriented drills into every workout. I have some workouts devoted completely to drills. I've also added some core technique drills into the warm up of each workout. Make sure some of your drills include Strokes Per Length, or SPL. Measuring your average SPL and then working to improve it is fundamental to ascertaining your swimming efficiency and becoming that person passing others using twice the energy.

Sighting – Since we are our own skippers, sighting is core to open water tactics. One must navigate by periodically locating pre-set race markers (usually orange course buoys) or landmarks, and swimming toward them. A balance must be struck between enough sighting to keep you on course and limiting sighting to maintain efficiency. Sighting requires lifting the head, which results in dropping the hips and slower swimming. Too much sighting will decrease your overall efficiency, while not sighting properly, especially in currents, can take a swimmer far off course and require extra energy, strokes, and time to correct.

I suggest three things with sighting. First, learn your own line. That is how straight you swim. Second, develop some sightings drills, and your own knowledge of how many strokes you can swim before needing to sight. I've integrated sighting drills into my indoor workouts, usually picking out objects to look for in the pool area and lifting my head as little as possible on either side to view them clearly, and then get back into balanced swim position. Finally, it helps to have mental roadmap of the course and environment you will be swimming in. Most events provide an advance course map to review. I often add orientation using Google Earth.

Know Your Output, Pace Your Output, Optimize Your Output – Here's where training principles come together. I've added heart rate monitoring to my workouts to develop a sense of swimming output. Like an internal tachometer, I have a fairly good mental measure of three different levels of my swimming: 6-7 (60 to 70 percent of my overall output), 8 (around 80 percent) and 9 – 10 (90 – 100 percent of my total capacity). With this, I study a race's course map and strategize what output to apply for each segment. Depending on the length, I usually try to swim in three stages: 6-7 in beginning, increasing to level 8 somewhere past midway, and determining a point where I think I can sustain an effort of 9 – 10 to the finish. Sometimes a shorter race and/or mild conditions mean a higher level can be chosen from the start. This is also where one can apply technique. In the first stage especially, in addition to making sure I keep the dial around 6-7, I concentrate on matching the most efficient swim and stroke technique possible to that output. The more efficiency applied here, the more I'll have left to maintain good form and go faster in the 8, 9, and 10 phases of the race.

Fluid and Energy Supplements – Unlike road running races, few open water events have fluid stations. If you decide a race is long enough to need extra hydration or energy you can work one of the small liquid or gel packs in without losing a lot of time. I find the most accessible spot I can place one in my suit without creating any drag, usually just under the waste line near the thigh, and tear the packet as much as possible without actually opening it. When I need it I do a quick sighting, turn to a back kick to keep forward motion, and consume the pack. I place the empty pack back in my suit (open water swimmers should be the last people littering waterways) and go back to normal swim position with the added boost.

Wetsuits & Drafting – There's a lot of debate in open water culture about both. On wetsuits, most races with water above 68°F (20°C) disqualify participants wearing wetsuits from awards. I've never used one in any of the summer races I do. It's up to swimmer discretion. Regarding drafting, at my level, I've determined swimming an all-around good race integrating points mentioned so far most important. If in the course of a race, an opportunity arises to hang off someone directly in front of me swimming at equal pace, I take it. If not, I've concluded the extra sighting and energy required to continually position oneself to draft not worth it.

Lube – Finally, don't make the mistake of not fully lubing all possible chafe points (arm pits, neck, etc.) This is especially important in salt water, which can seem like liquid sand paper after an hour or more of swimming. In addition to not sighting properly, I forgot this in my first race and had Frankenstein arms for a few days.

That's a snapshot of what I've learned so far. That fishing boat in the Long Island Sound did help me get back on course. After being lost and in the water nearly three hours, I finished my first race and have stuck with the sport since. In addition to all the benefits mentioned, open water distance allows us to swim and compete in some pretty unique environments from Lake Michigan, to the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Cayman Islands. I encourage all curious cement pond swimmers to get outside and try it.

Jake Bright is a USMS member, young professional, and freelance writer who lives in New York City