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Some open-water races will start from in the water...
...others may start from a pier or from a boat...
...and some will start from the beach or shore.
The one thing you can count on is that it will be crowded. There’s going to be flying arms and legs and you may get hit or you may hit someone else. It’s going to happen and it doesn’t mean the other person is mean or doesn’t like you. It’s just racing.
At the start -- and even during the swim -- everyone is jockeying around. If you can keep your head and not blow up if you get nudged or pushed around, you’ll be able to hold your ground and protect your space.
At a race with lots of people, my advice is to either get out in front (and you have to train for this by training distance and speed)...
...or start in the back or at the side.
If you start in the middle and you don’t sprint out front, you can get caught in the pack and you’ll waste a lot of energy fighting for space and maybe getting run over.
If you’re doing a run into the water, like in a beach start, it’s important to work on getting your ankles out of the water and swing them outside your knees. The idea is to run over the water instead of through it.
Once the water gets too deep, and you can’t get your feet out of the water, then you do dolphin dives. You need to check the bottom before the race to make sure this will be safe (no rocks or glass or anything that could hurt you).
If the bottom is solid, it’s usually faster to dolphin dive than it is to run or swim. With dolphin dives, you’re just jumping over the water. It’s a combination of a butterfly armstroke...a forward dive to get your hands on the bottom...and then a breaststroke pulldown until your hands are at your sides. Then you bring up your feet and get ready for another dive.
You want to start dolphin diving when the water is above your knees and around your thighs. If waves are coming in, you should start diving through the waves and not try to run through them.
In an ocean setting with lots of surf or waves, I try to dive right through the middle of the wave.
Once the bottom begins to slope away, you take a last push with your feet and start to swim. If there are still some waves or you’re having trouble with the break, you just try to swim through.
In a race that goes parallel to the shore, you want to get out past the break so the waves aren’t crashing into you on every stroke. Even if this takes you a little beyond the most direct line to the next buoy, it’s worth it.
Dolphin dives take practice. If you have a shallow pool you can practice them there...
...but most often you just have to get out to a beach or lake and practice.
Most of my races are 5K or 10K and these tend to have an in-water start.
To train for these at the pool, I like to push off the wall and scull in place for 5 or 10 seconds with my hips near the surface. I add a light kick with my legs behind me and then switch to an all-out kick or swim for a 25 or 50. This takes you from being still… to taking off at race pace.
If your game plan is to try to get out in front at the start of a race, you have to train for that opening speed in the pool. One set that I do is rounds of 4-by-100. On the first 100, the first 25 is all-out fast...
On the second 100, the first 50 is fast.
On the third 100, the first 75 is fast.
And on the fourth 100, the whole thing is fast. This is a great set for working on your opening speed.