We can learn a lot by watching the Olympic 10K swimmers in Tokyo this summer
Open water swimmers don’t get many opportunities to enjoy a pro-level marathon swim race from the comfort of their own couch, but the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics will provide a perfect opportunity to watch and learn from elite aquatic athletes as they make short work of the 10K.
One of the first things you’re likely to notice is how the elites always seem to know exactly where they are in relation to each other and the course buoys. They do it by incorporating frequent quick glances around into their stroke. In high-impact areas, such as around turns or in the scrum, they’ll be taking stock of the dynamic environment and their place within it nearly every stroke.
Elite open water swimmers know that pausing to look around—even if that’s to help you keep on course—will only slow you down and open the door to the folks behind you creeping up and taking your position. Instead, you have to make sighting a seamless part of your stroke that doesn’t cause you to drop your legs and slow you down. Take some notes on how to slip a little more positional awareness into your stroke from the experts.
A key component of any elite-level open water swim is drafting, the practice by which a swimmer falls in behind another swimmer, allowing the lead swimmer to take the brunt of parting new water while the second swimmer gets a bit of a free ride. Drafting is allowed—perhaps even encouraged—in the Olympic 10K race, and you can find plenty of great examples for how to do it well.
Especially observe how tightly the swimmers bunch up on each other’s feet or just off each other’s hips. The key with drafting is to fall into the slipstream of the lead swimmer. That means staying in the swimmer’s wake, as that segment of water will impart some momentum to the following swimmer and make forward progress a little easier.
If you’re aiming to complete a marathon swim, defined as a swim of 10 kilometers or longer, chances are you’re going to need to take in fuel or water at some point. And if you’re racing others and trying to get to the finish line first, it’s important to make those feeds as quick as possible.
In Olympic events, swimmers accept a cup of their preferred fuel offered from the end of a long pole extended by a coach or trainer from a boat or a floating dock. The swimmers manage to find the right pole, grab the cup, suck down the fluid, and toss the container in a matter of seconds. It really is extraordinary how it works like clockwork as two dozen swimmers scream into the same 15-foot area of water, manage to find the right cup, and move on in mere seconds.
You might not need to move quite that quickly, but the point is, the faster you can gulp and go, the better that will be for your chances of arriving at the beach first.
During the men’s open water 10K marathon swim final in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the value of pacing became especially apparent. For much of the race, Australian swimmer Jarrod Poort led the field—at one point opening up a gap more than a minute and 20 seconds over the chase pack. But he wasn’t the Olympic champion. No, that honor fell to Ferry Weertman, a 24-year-old Dutch swimmer, who overtook Poort in the final kilometer of the race. Poort finished 21st.
If you tend to jump out of the gate fast, all adrenaline and ambition at the start of a long race, learn to hold back some energy and manage your output throughout the event. A 10K marathon swim is a long race, equivalent to a marathon run and about three hours long for an average swimmer. The elites can finish it in under two hours, but even at those blazing speeds, pacing and understanding how to manage energy expenditure is critical to success.
Success in open water swimming often comes down to just hanging in there, and that’s true for your form too. This point was also beautifully illustrated by Weertman in a critical moment a few hundred yards from the finish in Rio de Janeiro, as he started doing a long “almost catch-up stroke” that put him just ahead of the snarl of the pack. In three, long, smooth strokes Weertman moved ahead of other swimmers like they were standing still.
In the thick of things, when you’re racing hard and just looking for the finish, it’s always helpful to stay focused on your technique. Going back to basics and holding your technique together in those last moments just might earn you a spot on the podium.
- Open Water