The Guide to Open Water Swimming: A Look at the Intriguing Tactics and Tricks

Open Water Feeding

The Guide to Open Water Swimming: A Look at the Intriguing Tactics and Tricks

By Ned Denison

Swimming is swimming. But the difference between pool swimming (with individual lanes, a line on the bottom and the protection of lane lines) and open water is dramatic. The word most often used is “physicality.” Each swimmer in open-water competition will experience significant physical contact with other swimmers. Ninety-five percent of the contact will not really hinder the swimmer and most of it will be unintentional. However, a 10 km race takes about two hours and the difference between gold and fifth place is often less than a few seconds. Even a little disruption due to physicality can be the difference. Successful open-water swimmers require a different mindset. Swimmers are in a close contact battle. It is not a pool race.

This article is intended to give a basic understanding of how these differences drive tactics in the marathon races. Please keep in mind that every swimmer in an elite marathon swim goes in armed for this close contact battle with a set of intermediate, advanced, and individually tuned tactics which have been discussed and practiced for years. This article only scratches the surface.

Referees are in place and observe 1% of the contact between swimmers and they caution and disqualify offenders. The other 99% of the contact goes unnoticed. In some cases, it is not contact but rather a swimmer is in the wrong place/position at the wrong time (think about football/soccer when the defender is behind the attacker in the penalty box).

Starts: The contact may start before the end of the dive.

Sighting: Swimmers must determine their swim line based on the position of other swimmers and likely turns and finishing approaches. Watch the finish (at 1:30 on the video) of the 2008 Men’s Olympic final – IMSHOF Honoree Maarten van der Weijden (shaved head) is in second, then at 1:48 in third. The leading two swimmers (with better sprint speeds) swam a line too far right and Maarten took gold after nearly two hours.

Turning: With 25 to 75 swimmers all looking to execute a 90-degree right turn (at 0:45 on the video) around the same buoy. Does the swimmer turn close? Does the swimmer go wide? Certainly, the swimmer doesn’t want to be forced into a vertical position, stuck in grid lock for five or 10 seconds. Notice the contact by the swimmers entering late into the turn. They are simply in the wrong place/position at the wrong time. If a referee observed an arm over another swimmer’s shoulder, it is a possible disqualification.

The pack and drafting: Open-water tactics in a 10k resemble cycling in the Tour de France. Swimmers in a slipstream achieve the same speed while saving energy. However, most swimmers have the same plan, and some will be hemmed in at the end and unable to break for the finish.

Feeding: A few gulps of water or an energy drink may make the difference in the swimmer’s ability to maintain a winning pace over two hours. Then again, skipping a feed or taking only ½ a gulp may result in a five-second advantage. A poor feed may also result in contact and going vertical in a traffic jam.

Timing/pace: Does the swimmer try and set the pace, stay in the leading pack or trail the pack (confident that they can join/pass later in the race)? Leading has its risks. In the Rio 2016 Olympics, Australian Jarrod Poort led by more than one minute but was caught and finished 21st – more than 40 seconds after the winner.

Making a move: It isn’t as simple as deciding that “Now I will pass the swimmer in front.” The swimmer may be in the middle of a pack and unable to cleanly execute. This is where advanced tactics come into play.

The final sprint: Does the swimmer start their finish line sprint 1500 meters from the end? Or 1000 or 500 or 100 or 50 meters? It is not just a decision made in isolation. An adjacent swimmer may have competed in the Olympic pool finals earlier in the week in the 400 or 1500 meters and is much faster at that pool distance. Go back to the previous example in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The lead swimmer was David Davies of Great Britain, who took sixth in the 1500 meters pool final, arguably the fastest swimmer in the open water final. The winner, Maarten van der Weijden, didn’t plan to beat David on a last 1500-meter sprint. His tactic was to wait, wait, wait and hope the others made a mistake (and they did).

It is worth contrasting tactics in the modern 10k race to tactics in the old days and other 25 k+ events.
There were occasional reports in the 1950s/1960s of a swimmer being passed by a competitor holding on to a rope trailing from their support boat! Let’s just say the observers/referees are more “independent” in the last few decades.

Pack swimming was essentially outlawed until the early 1990s. IMSHOF Honoree Melissa Cunningham remembers distinctly the first time she saw a pack of swimmers “go by.” She was leading and watched in horror.

It was not uncommon in the old days for a “tied” finish to be agreed to by the top two swimmer six hours into a race….and split the prize money.

IMSHOF Honoree Steven Muñatones still painfully remembers being stopped after eight hours and told the race distance was being increased by two miles to allow the crowd to get fully in place for the “exciting” finish.

IMSHOF Honoree Petar Stoychev would occasionally change to backstroke to slow down all the competitors knowing that he had the best 1500 finishing pace. It didn’t however always go his way. On September 10, 2010, in a match race of 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island, Mark Warkentin was a few meters ahead before that final sprint and managed to cross in front of the Staten Island Ferry. Petar was stopped and had to wait for the ferry to pass – giving Mark a comfortable swim to the finish.

Many old swims and some current swims still involve an ocean beach finish. The winner is the swimmer who times it best to catch the biggest/most powerful wave.

In the race Around Atlantic City the tidal impact is massive in the narrow back bay. Cut a corner too tight and the swimmer is in water too shallow to swim (and no running allowed). Cut the corner too wide and the tide is so strong you go backwards. Swimming past piers often involved looping inside and then the sprint of your life along the end of the pier before looping inside again.

1 comment

  1. avatar

    Good article Ned. Tactics look like a surf race in Aussie