Practicing alone to race in a pack

The vast majority of my training is done alone. Most days I get up early and either go to the gym and run for my prescribed time, or I hit the pool then ride my bike. The swim-bike days are longer and I rarely do the two disciplines back-to-back. Regardless, I’m doing them alone. If there are others in the swimming pool, we are divided by lane lines, so we don’t swim close together. I’ve found that there are both advantages and disadvantages to training this way and I’m going to share some recent revelations in this post. 

The big picture is that I am training alone to prepare to race in a crowd. This approach seems short-sighted, but it’s rooted in the realities of life. I have a job, family, other interests and so do all the other people in my area that train for races. Trying to coordinate a fixed schedule for three disciplines would be damn near impossible. Assuming anyone was actually interested in doing it at all.

There are very few things in life that are done alone or in a vacuum (Neil Armstrong and Mae Jemison just might have valid counterpoints about working in a vacuum). We who race tend to be quite competitive as a group. So, in the presence of other racers, our whole energy level and mental state tend to intensify when compared to our training “state”.  The lower state, I believe, is important so that we can focus more on developing the skills and habits. On race day, we are primarily focused on executing the plan. All of the habits have been created.

Being aware of the difference in mental states is very pertinent to developing as a competitor. For example, when I am running alone with a goal of running at a certain pace for a fixed period of time, it’s pretty easy to maintain my pace. But, when I try to keep that pace on a training run with three or four other runners it’s fucking hard. Each runner is ever so subtly trying to outdo the other runner. If you aren’t aware, you’ll end up blowing past your pace and changing the nature of the whole training session.

Right now, my goal is to build my base for endurance, so it’s very important that I train my body to say in the “fatmax/aerobic” energy zone (where my body primarily uses fat for energy).  Going outside of that zone changes my metabolic energy production to anaerobic and I won’t have the benefit that I was working to get (see the previous post on this).  Now, imagine that I am racing but am not aware of my tendencies to push too hard too fast. I could easily be manipulated by an experienced racer. They would coax me to push too hard to try and keep up with them and wear myself out too quickly. I would be tricked into sabotaging my race and I wouldn’t even know what happened. So, learning to remain composed while running with others is a necessity. 

Swimming laps for hours is NOT like swimming hard in open water

The change in dynamics is even more profound in the water. Keep in mind that there are several important physical differences to deal with when transitioning my training from a pool to an open water environment (the ocean, a river or a lake). First, a pool has multiple guides, the lane lines and colored tiles on the bottom ensure that I swim straight. If I happen to swim at an angle, eventually, I will smack the lane line and then straighten up. Easy.  Second, there are walls at each end. I grab the wall and push off the wall. Regardless of how long I take to turn around, I always use the wall at regular intervals (25 m or 50m). I get used to that brief, regular break.  Now, when I swim in an open water environment the sides are almost always more than 20 feet away. There are no markings on the bottom to let you know if you are moving in a straight line or meandering like a stray dog in the outback. The swim courses typically involve one or two turns around fixed buoys, and the most efficient use of your energy is to swim directly towards them. To do that I have to learn how to sight regularly or I will swim off target. Then waste energy correcting my course…over, and over, and over again. 

Wait, don’t’ forget about the effect of the wind. The pool is rarely ever choppy, so it’s easy to breathe while I swim. When in a lake or the ocean winds can pick up unexpectedly and I may find myself not only swimming against wacky, ever-changing currents but also fighting to take a breath as a wave or spray wants to fill my mouth as it opens (swimming is even harder when I’m choking). Finally, add a pack of racers who are trying to go to the same place that you want to go, only get there faster than you. It can become overwhelming. 

Open water group practice is a great way to simulate and prepare for the chaos of an open water race. While we can’t create choppy water or regulate the temperature, we can experience the pack environment and learn to deal with the additional stimulation of swimming side by side with others.

I recently participated in my first open water group session. Johnny hosts them throughout the summer and strongly encourages all of his trainees to participate. Before attending one I knew that he would teach us how to sight, but beyond that, I was in the dark. I thought it was just a way to get more time in the water. Turns out, it isn’t, it’s much, much more.

The lake we used has an anchored boat about 200 yds from the dock which presented the first challenge…I am not able to gauge distances from one point to another. So, unlike the pool, pacing based on known distance doesn’t work. Either I swam too quickly or too slowly I got frustrated pretty fast.



The second challenge that I encountered was trying to swim in a straight line from the dock to the boat while maintaining good body position (not swimming with my head popped up like a prairie dog). When we are racing, we breath on either the left or right side, not forward. But, to look forward we have to time the twisting of our head to take a breath with quickly looking forward without popping up our head and slowing down. This maneuver is very hard to execute well. The difficulty is compounded when others are around you and they are bumping into you. Also, if I’m not in the lead, I have to either follow someone without knowing if are they swimming in a straight line, or I keep sighting and look over the other swimmers and their splashing. If most people are going in one direction, I think it’s pretty safe to just follow the pack and lookup less frequently. 

Finally, the most unexpected challenge was the physicality of the swim. Although I’ve done a few races, I’ve always chosen to start at the back of the pack and allow all of the other swimmers to go before I started swimming. Johnny doesn’t want me to do that anymore. I’m a fairly strong swimmer and I need to start in the appropriate spot. So, to prepare me for the chaos of the swim pack, we did an interesting exercise. One that I’d never seen or experienced. He had me swim in the lead then have two other swimmers swim right next to me and behind me. Their job was to smack me as they swam. Someone’s hands and arm was hitting my side and occasionally pushing me underwater (yes people will swim over you). Another swimmer was on my feet, constantly hitting them. I had to learn to deal with all of that excess stimulation while maintaining my head, swim straight, breath and keep my form. Again, I felt both mentally overloaded and I became overstimulated by the physical touching of the other swimmers. I kept swimming, but it took more out of me than If I were swimming there alone.

I plan to supplement my training with much more team-style practice. If I can make every situation feel ‘normal’ before race day, then I’ll have less to mentally cope with and be better equipped to stay focused on my plan during a race.