Dealing With The Masses
It is one of the most voiced concerns open water swimmers raise when discussing open water swim racing; the mass start. It can be a daunting, scary, physical experience.
A mass start will always have an element of tension and energy. The idea is to minimise this as much as possible in order to maximise your overall performance and your enjoyment. Learning to achieve this takes time and takes experience.
From a deep water start; If you are in a wetsuit relax, more than likely the wetsuit will keep your head well above water. Do not needlessly tread water and waste energy. It will also help you avoid unnecessary body contact.
Talk to people and smile, it helps to ease tension and relax the nerves. Say ‘Hi’ or wish someone luck.
Pick your line that you are going to swim. If you have a good idea of where you are going you are far less likely to get disorientated.
When the swim starts you will be going from close to zero output to a significant workload. Many athletes allow the hype, adrenaline, nerves and other swimmers to dictate their pace. If you allow these emotions to dictate the situation more than likely you will be working and swimming much faster than you have rehearsed. This will result in a feeling over overload, out of breath and for beginners this can result in a panic situation. For others at the very least it will mean having to slow down to allow your body to physiologically adjust and recover to this new ‘busy’ workload. The more calm and controlled you can keep your swim start, the better off you’ll be all around.
By its very nature ‘open’ water swimming means people can swim an open line. This will result in contact as one swimmer drifts left and the other drifts right. Contact in mass participation is almost a given. The idea is not to avoid contact but to minimise as much as possible and to ensure other swimmers have as little impact on your swim performance as possible. Believe it or not other swimmers can even greatly enhance your swim if you know how.
Swimmers may nudge each other or if you are in the middle you may get contact from both sides. Stay calm, stay relaxed. Let the situation sort itself. Swimmers may move left and right again, or you may need to slow down or speed up to remove yourself from the ‘sandwich’. The worst you can do is let the contact distract you from the job at hand; focus on swimming, maintaining your breathing pattern and navigating.
Right from the start of a mass participation swim you will have opportunities to enhance your swim performance and experience, or detract from it. Drafting from the swim start is an excellent way to get the best from your swim start while minimising workload. Swimming directly behind someone will increase your efficiency by around 20%. Swimming directly next to someone with your head around their shoulder line will give around 5% efficiency advantage. If you are sandwiched between two swimmers sitting back with your head around their shoulder line can be very beneficial. Whatever you do don’t be sandwiched and have your head in front, you’ll be helping two people along and spending additional energy to do so.
A critical step in getting the mass start right is that you first rehearse mass starts race in a group without the pressure of a ‘race day’. This is the first step toward properly preparing yourself for a mass swim start. If you’re not comfortable, unsure about strategy, tactics, technique or swim gear seek additional advice from a coach or experienced swimmers.
There are no shortcuts when learning mass start swim skills. You need exposure and practice. The more experience you have in these situations the more relaxed you can become. That’s why it’s a good idea to pick a couple of swims prior to your main event where you are not so focussed on the result but are more focussed on analysing and dealing with and learning from individual facets of the race. It is why I always advocate triathletes do a couple of pure swim races so they can rehearse, learn from mistakes in the swim without the pressure of having to get out and bike and run afterward.
The more skills you can get comfortable with before race day the less apprehensive you will be and the more capable you will be in dealing with the race. With enough rehearsal and experience believe it or not mass start swims can be a whole lot of fun.