by CBCG coach Molly Balfe
Spring is finally here! The snow is melting and triathletes are making the slow transition from their trainers to the open road. With the improvement in weather comes the indisputable fact that race season is upon us. Athletes everywhere are testing out their flashy new kits, ensuring their nutrition is dialed in for race day, and (hopefully) adjusting their workouts to allow them peak for their first important race. A good training plan should include a few weeks, or at least a few days of decreased volume to rest up for the big day and provide a chance to heal from the physical and psychological stresses of training.
Simultaneously, workouts during these “peak weeks” should also include a bit of higher intensity work in an effort to stay fresh as volume decreases. Perhaps more importantly, training sessions are great opportunities to simulate the unique challenges of race conditions, practicing coping mechanisms for when things inevitably get tough. To get ready for the swim leg of a big race, triathletes should ideally seek out open water swims to acclimate to that exciting sensory depravation experience that accompanies swims in murky water without convenient walls for unscheduled rest breaks. This preparation is invaluable, but there is so much more you can do to make sure you are ready to have your best swim possible.
Race starts are specifically engineered to be exciting, if not completely chaotic experiences. The music pumping, the announcer amping everyone up, nervous athletes shimmying into their wetsuits, and everyone panicking about lines for the bathrooms... All of this hyperactivity comes to an apex as the gun goes off and athletes heart rates are potentially higher than at any point during the entire race. If you do not prepare for this eventuality, you may well end up taking out the first few hundred yards of your race at a categorically unsustainable pace.
Have you ever found yourself struggling to breathe, 100-200 meters or so into the swim? Perhaps you can’t even tell how fast you’re swimming since everything is so wildly different from the pool? Maybe you’ve even faced anxiety or panic? This scenario is one reason why I love giving athletes fast start intervals as they start to taper for a race. Mimicking race starts is an essential practice from the beginner to the pro, as every triathlete must be ready to swim the frenzied start with a semblance of grace, and then drop back to a strong, but sustainable pace for the entire swim.
The following two workouts are among my favorite “peak week swims.” The first is a pool sesh, and the second should ideally be done in open water. I typically prescribe the pool workout early during the week before a race, and the lake or ocean swim later, preferably on Sunday after their long run (which tends not to be very long that weekend). I’m cognizant that it’s not always convenient for everyone, but I do recommend prioritizing finding open water for that week prior, since nothing simulates race conditions like finding a buddy, zipping up each other’s wetsuits, and swimming with the fish.
Fast Starts / Pool
400 easy swim – use a buoy if you are preparing for a wetsuit legal race (no paddles)
8x50 build (:10 rest)
4x250 as 50 fast/200 race pace (:15 rest)
500 @ race pace
200 cool down
Fast Starts / Open Water
10 minutes easy swimming
5x(20 strokes fast/hard, 50 strokes easy)
10 minutes steady, just below race effort
5 minutes easy cool down
Remember, competence comes with preparation! If swimming in open water is outside your comfort zone, don’t expect that to change on race day. Comfort comes from familiarity and confidence, and the A-#1 best thing you can do to minimize race day anxiety is to mimic race conditions. How about this: make a stretch to have your next swim start more cool, calm, and collected then ever. Your coach will be able to tell from your heart rate file, and you’ll be able to overcome unexpected challenges if you incorporate the above workouts. We CBCG coaches are here to help you not just get physically fit, but also mentally fit to make your next race, and this season your best!