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Suggestions for Swimmers

It is essential that swimmers prepare and train well in advance for any open water swimming event they choose to enter.


It is suggested swimmers swim the race distance for shorter races without stopping and 85 per cent of the distance for races 15 kilometres and longer one month to two weeks prior to the race. This is in order to gain the necessary self-confidence and to determine feeding times, food items and support personnel needed.


No one should undertake any competitive open water event unless physically fit, in excellent health, and fully expected to finish. It is advisable for any person undertaking any athletic event to be checked by a qualified medical expert. This is especially important in distance swimming.


The swimmer is responsible for all personal support needs.



Coaches having a basic knowledge of 'pool' training programs will need to apply additional training techniques to prepare swimmers for open water swimming. There are also specific health and safety concerns associated with open water training and competition of which the coach must be aware.


Training Considerations

Swimmers preparing for open water events usually combine pool workouts with open water swimming training sessions. While pool training includes a number of elements not required in open water (i.e. such as turns and rest intervals), it's still necessary as a means to closely monitor speed over set distances. Open water training is necessary as a specific means of race preparation; the primary skills acquired during this phase of training are:


  • navigational skill,
  • ongoing feeding and fluid replenishment,
  • acclimatisation to rough water conditions, and
  • coordination with race support staff (i.e. handlers and escort craft).


The proportion of work done in the pool and open water may vary from one swimmer to another. Available training time and conditions usually dictate the mixture.


Pool training will usually concentrate on aerobic base, aerobic endurance, or critical velocity training outcomes. High lactate-producing training sets are generally not required; however, some maximum speed training is advised. Speed over a short distance is often useful in open water so that the swimmer is able to break away from, or pass, a swimmer. Naturally, training volume must be high to prepare the swimmer for long competitive distances. Therefore, the recovery skills used by pool swimmers are even more important for open water swimmers. Coaches must carefully coordinate the application of long endurance training sets (and critical speed sets) with long aerobic base training sets, to allow sufficient recovery from session to session.


The mechanics of freestyle swimming are basically the same for open water swimming specialists; however, because water conditions may be rough the swimmer may need to modify his/her technique. The swimmer may need to turn the head and breathe under the armpit to shield the mouth, and recover the arms higher over the water. A two beat kick is commonly used to conserve energy. Open water swimmers generally have a higher stroke rate (i.e. strokes per minute) than pool swimmers because of a slightly shorter stroke length (i.e. distance travelled per stroke cycle).

Open water swimming training sessions usually employ total swimming time and stroke rate as the major determinants. Since it's difficult to measure swimming velocity, stroke rate is used to define the level of intensity. The coach should plan training sessions using the tempo that will be used under race conditions. Rather than planning interval swims (as done for pool training) the coach should plan tempo swims. For example: 30 minutes of swimming at 66 strokes per minute, followed by 15 minutes at 76 strokes per minute, etc. Training sets are then constructed on the basis of stroke rate and time swum. If a group of swimmers are being trained in open water, the lead position should be rotated regularly.


Navigational Skills

These are essential for open water swimmers. An escort craft should be positioned at least 2-3m from, and directly opposite or slightly to the rear of, the swimmer. The swimmer will be able to maintain position by lifting the head regularly (i.e. about 2-4 times per minute) and sighting the escort craft. If shore markers are used, the swimmer may need to lift the head forward and sight objects; the swimmer must also be able to breathe to either the right or left side. Whenever possible the swimmers should be positioned between the escort craft and the shoreline (note: swimmers are not allowed to position themselves behind the escort craft, as this is drafting). The escort should carry a whistle to signal the swimmer if required. Different wind and water conditions must also be taken into consideration. In a heavy crosswind the swimmer may need to swim at an angle to stay even with the escort craft.


Long swims will require feeding and/or fluid replacement every 30 minutes; approximately 200-400ml of a liquid carbohydrate/electrolyte solution. Food requirements will depend upon body temperature (swimming in cold water requires more heat energy) and the duration and intensity of the swim. Solid food will be difficult to chew when the heart rate is elevated; therefore a glucose solution mixed with mashed fruit is usually taken. Don't wait until the body is depleted of muscle and liver glycogen before starting a replenishment schedule.


There are several health/injury concerns associated with open water swimming training:


Hypothermia is a condition in which the body's core temperature drops too low. The body can be protected from excess heat loss by wearing a swim cap to insulate the head, ear plugs, and covering the body with vaseline (or similar non-soluble substance). Body parts that may become irritated, as a result of repeated rubbing (i.e. the neck, armpit, groin) also should be covered with a lubricant. The symptoms of hypothermia are:


  • uncoordinated swimming movements;
  • disorientation when stopping to feed; and
  • failure to respond to commands from handlers.


The coach should be aware of these signs and be prepared to end training sessions when hypothermia is suspected.


Training in warm water or in bright sunlight also presents problems. The risk of sunburn is a real danger that must be addressed and a maximum protection sunscreen should be applied before training. Training in warm water may require more frequent breaks to replenish fluid.


The risk of jellyfish stings is greater in warm water areas and knowledge of the local conditions and emergency treatment procedures are essential.


A final health concern is the exposure to infectious diseases. Open water swimming in lakes or rivers may carry with it some risk of exposure to pollutants in the water. The swimmer should keep immunisations up-to-date (i.e. hepatitis and tetanus in particular, a gamma globulin injection may be required). The coach should consult with the local health authority to obtain information on water quality.



Racing Considerations

The coach should obtain a copy of open water swimming rules from the race organiser. Differences may exist between 'training' conditions and race conditions, the swimmer and coach should be aware of all rules and pay particular attention to the following:


  • care must be taken at the start, any turns and at the finish, as swimmers are not permitted to impede other swimmers;
  • “unsportsmanlike behaviour”, including where applicable, drafting off escort craft, is not allowed during the race;
  • obstructing or interfering with the progress of other swimmers (note: obstruction by a swimmer's escort craft is also deemed unacceptable) may lead to a disqualification;
  • the swimmer may not receive support (i.e. to hold the swimmer up) from any fixed or floating objects, as well as their escort craft or crew. The swimmer may not rest against the escort craft or crew when feeding.
  • Both swimmer and coach should be aware of any specific safety requirements to be implemented during the race. As a general rule, open water swimmers will approach race day in a similar way to pool swimmers. These additional points may be useful:
  • pre-race meal and fluids should be taken about 2 hours before competition;
  • review signals to be used between support crew and swimmer;
  • have adequate food and fluids in the support craft (keep them in water-tight containers prior to use);
  • have adequate first aid supplies, including blankets (i.e. if the race is terminated due to hypothermia) in the support craft;
  • be aware of any course hazards; and
  • take precautions against the loss of body heat and protect against sunburn.


It is often helpful for the handler in the support craft to have a large plastic board and waterproof markers for writing messages (i.e. stroke rate, split times, etc.) to relay to the swimmer. Feeding stops should be well rehearsed. Allow the boat to approach the swimmer when feeding is signalled (don't take the swimmer off course by making him/her swim to the boat). Prior to the race, decide on a strategy for the start; it may be impossible for the support craft to move into a parallel position with the swimmer until the pack of swimmers thins out.


In large races there may be general escort craft on the racecourse (usually surf skis, canoes or kayaks) to guide swimmers. The handler is the person who must make all race decisions. It's the handler's responsibility to signal feeding stops, keep the swimmer on course, assess race conditions (i.e. weather) and evaluate the condition of the swimmer throughout the race. The handler must maintain visual contact with the swimmer at all times and be aware of any problems. The handler should provide verbal encouragement and information to the swimmer throughout the race.


Handlers Responsibilities

In the past many swimmers have not relied to a great extent on their handlers. These swimmers have been successful in their efforts due to their ability to organise and understand their own requirements. However, events with stronger competition, longer distances and more open water bring added need for the best support for the swimmer.

The following are guidelines for requirements of the handler; they are not necessarily pertinent to every swimmer. These requirements are:


  • Knowledge of open water swimming is paramount. Experience in some form of open water or even surf swimming is an advantage.


  • An understanding of the swimmer, his/her dislikes, his/her true ability along with the expertise to be everything the swimmer needs in the course of the event.


  • The ability to organise all food, grease, blankets, seasickness tablets, sunscreens, caps, goggles. To prepare all with the least interference for the swimmer prior to the event. The swimmer’s confidence in knowing that you have everything organised is important.


  • An understanding of the ocean, lake or river waters, coupled with the ability to read tidal charts and to understand the effects of currents, winds and waves.


  • Understanding the swimmer’s bad times, and being able to bring them through these periods. A tolerance to nurse when needed and be cruel when necessary. Being able to adjust and change whatever is required to lift the swimmer. This understanding can be developed during workouts and events – swimmers’ reactions will, of course, differ under different environmental conditions.


  • Probably the most important method of knowing a swimmer’s own handling of a swim is his/her stroke rating. All swimmers must, before undertaking an open water swim, know their comfort zone in relation to stroke rating. During training all swimmers should have swum in open water. From these swims stroke per minute readings should have been taken. During a race, the prime requisite to the swimmer is to know their stroke rating. As a reference point, between 76 and 88 strokes seems to be the comfort zone, depending on the size of the swimmer. Hypothetically, from your training, 83 strokes per minute would have a swimmer holding 5 minutes for 400 metres, 80/81 is down a bit to a possible 5 minutes 5 seconds, and 85/86 is too fast at around 4 minutes 55 seconds and must be slightly pulled back. Just those few strokes too early can be paid for dearly later on. However, coaches need to be aware that technique and stroke ratings depend very heavily on environmental conditions.


  • Most importantly, a handler must protect the swimmer from swimming through water tainted by outboard motor fumes. Keep the swimmer away from fumes blowing across the water, and have the exhaust switched off on larger vessels where the exhaust protrudes on the side of the swimmer.


  • Be aware of the advantage that can be gained by hiding a swimmer with the escort boat from other swimmers. A change in direction by one or the other can be the time that a break is made from another swimmer locked on to staying with your swimmer.


  • Never follow the main tender boat when shore points can be sighted. Remember the ocean is a big place. A boat going ahead and being followed by the swimmer will have a zigzag course. The idea with land points is to keep the swimmer straight. Sight a tower, building, or hill and aim for that point. You should make adjustments for tide and note the direction of the flow. Every twenty minutes adjustments can be made.


  • To check movement, look for anchored craft or buoys between you and the shore on either side of your swimmer, not ahead. By sighting just ahead of the fixed object you will be able to see your progress. Hopefully you will see a steady movement of the terrain behind the anchored object.


  • If the progress is slow you must ascertain water movement due to the tide or river current. Water always moves fastest in the middle of the river. Shift to the shore if slow; if fast, find the best centre run to the next point, go well past any point to keep in the flow, hug the point, as there is a chance of being swung into the eddy.


  • In the ocean you must find your best position. Hug the shore if possible. If not, check your tide chart for where the flow changes. You must also remember that the full thrust of a tide whether flood or ebb lasts around 2 to 2½ hours; the rest of a six hour tide time is made of building up or slowing down to the slack water period. There is no point in pushing your swimmer too far. Controlled swimming is most important at this stage. Tides, although charted etc., do not always go as written – storms a hundred kilometres away can make tides run much longer than normal. By sighting etc. you should be able to see the tide change, and this is the time for encouragement for the swimmer.


  • In open water, anchored boats will always, in still conditions, point into the water flow. The bow will point into the flow. In windy conditions an anchored boat will show similar wind direction. In wind and tide conditions you should ascertain the direction of tidal flow along with an expected variance caused by the wind. Always allow a little more up wind so that if you miss on the calculations your swimmer is not swimming directly into both tide and wind.


  • If bad weather hits, protect your swimmer with the boat. Place the escort boat between the side the wind is coming from and your swimmer. You will be amazed how much difference it will make. It will protect from waves and swell.


  • If weather comes from ahead, adjust your swimmer’s style. Breathe further back and higher, throw hands high and over the waves, bring in a good two beat kick to keep high and for getting over the waves, increase swimmer’s body rotation. Most swimmers should have trained in similar conditions and understand the different style requirements in these conditions.


  • Know your swimmer’s feeding requirements and stick rigidly to their wishes. Never allow or listen to new products or whatever someone recommends on the day. If it hasn’t been tried, don’t change. By all means try all you like in future training sessions. The tried formula is the accepted, change should never be allowed on the day of the race.


  • Have a communication understanding with your swimmer, e.g. halfway through the next feed, turn a peak cap around on your head, 5 minutes to feed switch the cap back around the right way. Just watch the swimmer looking for the food being prepared. Chalkboard or pad messages should always be clear and to the point. Any message must be written so that it is immediately understood. Watch that the sun is not reflecting off the board and that it can be read.


  • Feeding. A good handler will have a calm relaxed swimmer taking food as quickly as possible. The swimmer should not need to talk. As they are eating they are listening and a good handler is telling them everything they need to know. Should the swimmer have any questions it can be answered on a chalkboard soon after if a reply cannot be immediately given.


  • A good handler never leaves their swimmer. It is total commitment for the whole period. You are part of the team. The handler’s eye contact is absolutely continuous. Understanding the eyes is most important. If a swimmer is going to pass out, the first indication will be from the eyes. It is known for persons to be still swimming in an unconscious state.


  • Cold water swims call for the use of grease. Swimmers should have tried some form, whether only on a thigh or somewhere prior to racing. There are different formulas and you should find which one suits. The base is lanolin (wool fat) and is obtained from your local chemist shop. Some may have to order it in so make sure you allow the extra time. Sometimes it is very thick and to stop the lumping during a swim, it can be thoroughly mixed with a little liquid paraffin to a buttery like substance. Vaseline or petroleum jelly can also be mixed, or in the not-so-cold swims, used on their own.


  • When applying grease there are rules.

o   Have two pairs of rubber gloves, one pair is for the swimmer.

o   If a crowd is around or modesty prevails, large towels or sheets can be used to screen the swimmer. With the swimmer assisting, grease should initially be applied in a downward stroking application.

o   Put it on thick and force it thinner as you apply it down the body. The emphasis with grease is not the thickness but the sealing of the pores of the skin. This stops the body’s heat escaping, thus allowing you to stay warmer.

o   The swimmer can apply it under costumes and the groin area. Once satisfied with the hidden parts, the swimmer should leave the grease with the handler, keeping it still and upright. Swimmers are normally very nervous at this stage and all attention should be towards greasing properly, relaxing the swimmer with the job done well.

o   Do not leave lumps anywhere, keep it smooth and tight with special attention to the kidney area and the back of the neck.

o   Do not grease under the arms below the elbows and keep well away from the eyes. Make sure the swimmer’s hands are clean and grease free.


  • Make sure you have old towels and blankets for cleaning up and wrapping the swimmer in when the event is finished. Be prepared with a longer towel or blanket that can be rolled into a sling in the event of the swimmer having difficulties in the water. The retrieval of a semi- or unconscious swimmer covered in grease can be almost impossible and made worse in rough or choppy water conditions.


  • Be aware of what you clean up best with. Solvents etc. can work on grease but an old favourite is a very strong detergent or dish washing liquid. Rubbing is also a good way of getting warmth back into the body. If the swimmer is really cold just wrap in blankets and towels until they get warm, wrap and rub the feet, stroke upwards towards the heart leaving grease on until the swimmer is comfortable. If conditions are rugged, leave the swimmer wrapped up until calmer conditions can be found. Relax your swimmer on the journey back to port, feed warm drink and food and, if possible, on a longer trip home suggest a sleep.


  • Be considerate, if you are on a boat that is obviously a pride and joy of the owner be careful with the grease. Pilots do not take kindly to having grease all over their boats and if they have problems are reluctant to make their boats available again.


  • Swimmers when accompanied by IRB should be aware that these boats need to shoot away from the swimmer for short periods every hour or so. This is necessary to burn the oil off the plugs and stop the outboard motor breaking down. Either a pre-determined signal or writing on the chalkboard or chart can warn swimmers of this. Swimmers then adjust to swimming beside the main tender for a short period until their return.


  • Swimmers should wear bright coloured swim caps, preferably not white. Yellow or orange is considered ideal. In bad weather keeping a swimmer in sight is mandatory, and having a contrasting swim cap colour to the sea and the waves helps. A good torch with fresh batteries is essential with the onset of night. Diving glow sticks both on the side of the boat and out on the swimmer’s costume should be available.


  • Should a motor failure occur, keeping the swimmer in sight is the main concern. Often the swimmer is unaware of problems and keeps swimming. At this stage you should, if possible, stand at the highest vantage point holding one arm up and pointing in the direction of the swimmer. You must keep the swimmer in sight of the line of your arm, do not take your arm away, or more importantly, do not look away. In the ocean and large lakes a swimmer can disappear from sight simply from the boat drifting. Observers thinking they were looking in the direction of the swimmer may end up looking in a completely different direction.


  • A good handler will satisfy him/herself with all facilities etc. of any boat to be used in a swim before the event. Knowledge of where all the supplies taken on the boat will be during the swim is important. Should the need be to call for something urgently you must be able to say where it is. Rummaging through supplies by others can lead to the losing of important equipment. Keep food in a cool box, goggles, costumes etc. in a green bag, aspirin and anti-fog in a red bag etc.


  • When the race begins you know where everything is and now the only worry you have is your swimmer. This isn’t a pleasure cruise. For as long as the race/swim goes you stay with the swimmer the whole time. The swimmer is relying on you for every possible assistance. You must be in sight at all times providing the support to the swimmer.


  • If on a boat or paddling a board or ski, remember that you’re the eyes. You’re up higher than the swimmer and he/she must follow you. Do not follow the swimmer, if the swimmer drifts off it's up to you to bring him/her back to you, do not go after the swimmer, make him/her aware that he/she must keep his/her direction on you. Imagine a swimmer keeps pulling to the left and the crossing is ten kilometres. By the time you are almost at the finishing point your swimmer will be heading for a right hand direction, not taking into account extra you may have covered by the handler continuing to follow the swimmer.