Getting (Un)Comfortable

By Matt McGuckin

For me, the swim was always the most daunting part of triathlon. If you don’t come from a swimming background, it’s challenging to know how to train for an open water swim. So, for all of us aquatically-challenged triathletes what’s the key to a successful open water swim?

My first few triathlon race swims were a disaster. I read articles and found strategies about how to have a good swim on race day in preparation. Most articles will tell you to make sure you warm-up properly, start at the back of the race, pace yourself, etc. – These are great tips, but you’re at the 500m mark treading water and wanting to ask the guy in the kayak for a tow back to the shore, they aren’t much help.

I finally found swim success after adopting the concept of getting (un)comfortable during my training sessions. Like many, a lot of my swim sessions are either focused on technique or endurance/pacing – don’t get me wrong, these are very important. But, every once in a while, I will add in an uncomfortable training session. The key to these drills/sessions is to learn how to control your breathing, HR, and anxiety when things go awry. Here are a few methods that I’ve used to get myself feeling (un)comfortable:

  1. Eye’s closed sets – Swim lengths with your eyes closed while your head is in the water. You can open up your eyes when you breathe so that you can spot your lane rope and make sure you’re not running into other swimmers. In the open water, you can’t see the bottom of the lake so it’s harder to pace and swim straight. This is a great way to break up the monotony of lane swimming during an endurance session.
  2. Hypoxic sets – these are great for a number of reasons, but here the focus is to challenge your ability to control your breathing and anxiety. I typically breath every 3 strokes. When I swim hypoxic sets, it looks like this:

3 Sets

100m breathing every 3rd stroke (medium pace)

100m breathing every 5th stroke (a bit slower pace but should be challenging)

100m breathing every 3rd stroke (medium pace – reconnect with a normal rhythm)

50m breathing every 7th stroke (same pace as second set)

100m breathing every 3rd stroke (medium pace – reconnect with normal rhythm)

The key here is using every other set to allow yourself to reconnect with your normal breath and rhythm (breathing every 3rd stroke for me). Don’t allow yourself to take breaks and start with smaller distances if needed. This skill will come in handy if you start out too hard in a race or if you get nervous/anxious while you’re in the water.

  1. Swimming in busy pools – This isn’t ideal for getting a lot of mileage or working on technique, but it’s great at teaching you how to spot ahead of you and pass swimmers when you need to.
  2. Open Water Practice – obvious, I know. Ideally, you can swim in a small group for safety. If you do train in open water by yourself, it can be pretty nerve wracking. You have to be paying attention to boat traffic, spotting your course, and there’s no one there to bail you out if you get into trouble. I trained in open water by myself and found it invaluable to increasing my level of comfort in the open water. If you are going to do this, choose a lake with less boat traffic and use a Swim Buoy.