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Build your open water resilience and you'll soon gain the rewards

Alec Richardson is a year-round open water swimmer and coach who does most of his training in Clevedon Marine Lake but throws himself into the sea as often as family life and the tides of the Bristol Channel will allow him.

Here, Alec provides some tips on how to be resilient in the challenging conditions that open water can often throw at swimmers.

The better you prepare, the luckier you become.

It is easy to make the distance of an open water race, and the pace you hope to swim at, the primary focus of your training.

A common training pattern I encounter is working on technique and stamina over the winter in the pool, then focus on pace as the season approaches.

The volume and speed of metres covered are scrutinised and worked on. Advice is sought, gizmos are employed.

Increase in sustained pace is the golden goal, and there may be improvements, but they are often small in relation to the intensity of focus and effort.

Of course, that’s what the open water racer does. Speed produces a personal best, or wins a race, so work on it.

As the season approaches, dust off your wetsuit and get a few swims in your local open water venue to remind yourself how it all works – probably somewhere familiar, over a course you know well and at a time when you can focus on your speed, technique and stamina in relative peace.

Make your own luck

But after your first race – forgive the obvious set-up here – you cannot help but bemoan your lack of fortune.

Bad luck that you normally train in a clear lake, but this was murky. Spooked by the lack of visibility, you took a few minutes to get going, then had to fight your way through the throng.

So unlucky that your favourite training venue has a clockwise course, but the race went the other way and you didn’t get the hang of those turns until the second lap.

Incredibly unfortunate that you usually take a couple of minutes to get in, settle your breathing and get your race face on.

The start of this race had you running 50 yards through shallow water and the shock of the plunge threw you into a 300 yard, energy-sapping battle between your mind, lungs and limbs.

And who was that striding out of the lake a minute ahead of you? Isn’t that the girl you usually lap a couple of times every thousand metres in the pool? Lady fortune must have been smiling down on her today.

It’s not hard to see where I’m going with this. How can you build your resilience? Your training regime must balance time spent gaining speed with opportunities to work on minimising significant losses.

Mixing it up

Get involved in some group training sessions run by an open water coach. Even if it’s in a pool, a good coach will get the right skills in, maybe even removing the lane ropes and banning contact with the floor or walls for the session.

They know how much open water swimmers can be affected by the interruptions and surprises of trying to race in large numbers, in strange places.

You should get practice in different mass starts such as deep water, dives and run-ins. Busy buoy turns, drafting, sighting and finding space should feature too.

Find different places to swim. Maybe your lake is sheltered and clear. Perhaps it’s deep and its temperature doesn’t vary quickly.

Find a lake which is shallow and follows the air temperature more closely. Get there on different days, seek out cold, windy, choppy days to swim, then try to get back there on a still, hot day.

Better still, get to the coast and find a bay to swim up and down. Use social media to contact the local sea swimmers’ group and see if you can join them.

They will advise you when it is safe to be in the water. Perhaps there will be some marathon swimmers amongst them – watch and learn as they adapt their stroke to the conditions.

Feel the difference as the chop and swell comes at you from different directions.

Group training

Get together with a couple of mates and train in a different way. Forget the distance, forget your favourite training logging app. Try to swim as a small group.

Practice drafting, but take it in turns to be the awkward swimmer, slowing down, weaving about, grabbing ankles. When you get to a buoy, if it’s safe to do so, go around it the wrong way – all the way around – as a group.

Are you better at fighting for the inside line, or are you quicker taking a wider, but undisturbed route?

Get in the open water a few times a bit earlier in the year. It may be colder than you would like, and you may not be able to swim for long enough for it to feel like a proper training session, but you are arming yourself with the knowledge that the odd degree here and there can still be dealt with.

Maybe, in the next race, you will be unflustered. Conditions will not spook you, distractions will be sidelined, and you will be free to get your focus back on that all-important pace.