1.21.2010

10 Commandments of Open Water Swimming

I ran into this entertaining and useful article on the United States Open Water Swimming Association's website and thought it was worth sharing. It was written by open water swimming coach John Flanagan. Someone should put this on a shirt.

1 Thou Shalt Not Swim Alone

Safety is the first command­ment in Flanagan's bible, and safety means never swimming in open water alone. Either swim with another person or get a friend to accompany you in a boat. If that's impossible. swim parallel (and close) to shore while someone walks the shoreline watching you. "Definitely have a buddy sys­tem," says Flanagan. "Swim­ming alone is a bad move."

2 Thou Shalt Not Be Intimidated

Yes, open-water swimming is different from a pool-eaves, currents, no walls-but that's the fun. Besides, with a little knowledge and a few tricks, these variables are easily managed.

3 Thou Shalt Start Small

If you're looking for a race or a good training spot, think small and tame. Flanagan's own open-water experience began in 1979 with a two-mile cable swim (swimmers swim loops around a quarter-mile length of cable) in a lake. You should do the same. Try something short (open-water races can be as little as a half mile), calm (lakes are a good place to start), and fun (guaranteed, says Flanagan).

4 Thou Shalt Learn To Sight Breathe

In the fullness of time, your ability to swim straight will im­prove dramatically, but until then you'll need to look where you're going about every five strokes. You do that by lifting your head up just high enough to clear the waves. If you lift it higher, you'll drop your legs and put unnecessary strain on your neck and back. If you can't get a good look, drop your head, take a few more strokes, and look again. If you keep your head up for several strokes, you'll wear yourself out. Flanagan's swimmers prac­tice the head lift (and condi­tion their necks and backs) in the pool with his 50-yard "Tarzan" drill: 25 yards one way with their heads out of the water, 25 yards back swimming easy freestyle.

5 Thou Shalt Alternate Breathe

Learn to breathe to both sides, every third stroke. This helps you see where you're going and, more important, it eases shoulder strain. Alter­nate breathing helps in short races and is crucial in longer swims. Flanagan, big on detail, does the math-in a 10-hour race you might take 40,000 strokes. "Breathe every stroke and, whew, man you could re­ally destroy that one shoul­der," he says.

6 Thou Shalt Not Kick So Hard

Open-water swimming is about efficiency, not power, says Flanagan. You're swimming longer, so you need to con­serve. The best place to start? Your legs - those big, energy‑gobbling muscles. Bag that six ­beat kick for an easy two-beat one. "You become much more of an upper-body swimmer," says Flanagan. "The legs are al­most along for the ride."

7 Thou Shalt Not Covet a Pool Stroke

Pool coaches forever harp about pushing hard through the last part of the freestyle arm stroke, where you generate the most power. Good advice if you're swimming a 100 free, but in open-water swimming, you want to save your energy. "Concentrate on the front and middle part of your stroke and ease off during the stressful follow-through because that's going to wear you out," Flana­gan says. "In open water, you actually have to learn to be a little less efficient"

8 Thou Shalt Let the Mind Wander

Open-water swimming can be an out-of-body experience of sorts-the mind wanders off while the body goes about its metronomic business. "You get into an almost hypnotic state where you separate your mind from your body," says Flanagan. "Your body is doing the work and your mind is en­joying the scenery or the feel of the water. In a short pool swim, you need intense mental focus, a plan for every step of the race. But in open-water swimming, you can't focus on minutiae because it will wear you out and drive you nuts. You need to mentally relax." And definitely don't think about how far you have to go, laughs Flanagan.

9 Thou Shalt Start Smart

The starts of open-water swims can be crazy. Popular ones might have 600 people, and when the gun goes off they charge to the water like K-mart shoppers hunting a blue-light special. And that's the quiet part. In the shallows, you'll meet elbows, knees and feet everywhere. Some folks won't hesitate to swim right over you. If you've never been part of a mass start, or if you're a slower swimmer, Flanagan suggests you start at the back or to the side of the pack. And if the crowd is thick, stay wide of the buoys; it may require a few extra strokes but you'll avoid getting blud­geoned by everyone else cut­ting in close.

10 Thou Shall Have Fun

"Open-water swimming is an absolutely phenomenal sport." Flanagan gushes. "You won't believe the enjoyment and sat­isfaction you'll get from it."

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