Racing Like Elite Athletes

Racing Like Elite Athletes

What is the difference between the racing tactics and mindset used at the highest levels (Olympic and professional swimmers) and every other open water competitor?

Nothing, in our opinion.

In pool swimming competitions, an age-group or masters swimmer or a triathlete cannot necessarily replicate the strength, power, flexibility, grace or stroke technique of Olympic gold medalists like Michael Phelps or Natalie Coughlin.

However, open water swimming is an environment where age-group and masters swimmers and triathletes – with competitive zeal – can replicate sound racing tactics and utilize the same mindset as Thomas Lurz (the German world 5K and 10K champion) or Larisa Ilchenko (Olympic 10K gold medalist from Russia) do.

While there is only one winner in an open water races, there are dozens of packs scattered about the race course in any given competitive race. No matter what an athlete’s age, ability or background, they can race against those of similar ability – or, preferably, those athletes just slightly better.

At the USA Swimming national open water training camps, athletes are taught that open water swimming is like an onion or is similar to learning a golf swing: That is, there are innumerable layers of knowledge that one must master…over time.

Each race and each practice in the open water presents a unique educational opportunity. The athletes are encouraged to develop their Tactical Knowledge by watching film, by discussing ‘what-if’ scenarios and pondering what they can do better and what they did right after a race. Asking an athlete numerous questions right after a race – when their memory of the race is fresh – is ideal. Using the ‘Socratic open water method‘, the athlete can use descriptive language and learn more about the sport for him/herself.

An experienced open water swimming coach will be inquisitive – not instructive – after a race. By asking a lot of questions, the best kind of coach enables an athlete to internalize and understand what they did in a race – both good and bad. By encouraging the athlete – of whatever age or level – to visualize who they were swimming with, what their pace was, how did they feel, the shape of the pack, their positioning during the race, the athlete will eventually become more seasoned performer.

Open water coaches who question their athletes before and after a race help the athlete understand what can and should be done because each athlete is out there in the open water by themselves. Every decision they make in competitive situations – at the start, at the turn buoys, setting up the finish and during the final sprint – has a direct impact on their placing. And these decisions must be made quickly. Therefore, coaches can assist their athletes by constantly questioning them and pushing them to come up with the right answers for themselves in innumerable situations.

And, innumerable is the operative word.

At the Global Open Water Swimming Symposium & Conference in Long Beach, California, Gerry Rodrigues is going to give a talk on the number of situations an open water swimmer can face in competitive situations. For example, there are literally 16 million scenarios that can happen at the start of a typical onshore ocean race.

Athletes must learn how to recognize these situations and train themselves to react to them – as apparently you have done.

So what Thomas Lurz does at every point of his race can be replicated by those who less talented, older or slower than him. While he chases gold medals and prize money, athletes of any age or ability can compete with their buddies, teammates and the swimmers to their left and right – using similar tactics.

Craig Lord of SwimNews had a great interview with Thomas recently where Thomas said, “I very often think of and look at my rivals. I watch their stroke frequency and find out where the big favourites are swimming. Mostly I can see every good swimmer in the race. I have my eyes on them, but I also concentrate on my stroke and on the course and my tactics.”

Of course, if swimmers just want to get from Point A to Point B while enjoying the situation, without deep thought or competitive zeal, this is totally cool, too.

Copyright © 2010 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones