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Are you new to triathlon or open water swimming? Do you struggle with fatigue and breathlessness when you swim? Swim coach KATHRYN NURSE has some tips to help you when you tackle the open water.

Breathing/air exchange

The correct way to breathe out is by exhaling predominantly through the nose, late and strong. We breathe out through the nose late and strong for the following reasons:

1) So that we keep air in the lungs for as long as possible (for improved buoyancy).

2) So that our muscles have access to the oxygen needed (for optimal performance).

3) So that we create a vacuum for air to come into the mouth (easily and immediately) when the body turns to breathe. The open mouth is literally just ‘presented’ to the air for oxygen to come in. Therefore, we do not need to ‘suck air in’.

Some water and air will be in your mouth. You can keep the mouth loose and relaxed and exhale the surplus air and water when your face is in the water, but the vast majority of force

comes from exhaling out the nose (at least 75% out through the nose).

Breathing pattern

When you swim for any distance longer than 50m, you need to have a regular intake of oxygen. Ideally, you will breathe every second stroke to your dominant side. You might have

heard otherwise, but breathing to your dominant side is absolutely fine, as long as you do practice breathing to your less favoured side from time to time in training.

In this case you can breathe every second stroke to the left some of the time and then breathe every second stroke to the right for some of the time.

Try and mix it up in training. People ofen confuse bilateral breathing with breathing every third stroke. They are not the same thing. Bilateral breathing is breathing to both sides an even amount. It does not have to be every third stroke. If you are happy to breathe to both

sides, then that is great. If you like breathing every third stroke then that’s also fine.

However, what we don’t want is that the arms rush through the stroke because you are breathing bilaterally every third stroke and running out of air. Sometimes in a race you might have waves/chop hitting your face on the breathing side so you will need to be okay with breathing on the other side as well. However, for the most part in training and racing the best breathing pattern for longer distance is breathing every 2 strokes to the dominant side.

Body position

You want to ride as high as possible on the surface of the water. Keeping your head down and your chest pressed slightly into the water will help lift the legs and help to reduce drag.

Focus on sighting every now and then. Do not swim with a high head when you are not sighting. Swim with the head down (for improved body position) and only sight when you

need to.


You do not need to focus on obsessively kicking. You’d be better placed to focus on engaging the core with the head down to help to lift the legs.

The kick is gentle (long, loose legs) with the knees and toes turned ever so slightly inward (this will assist in engaging the core as well).

In triathlon you will need to ‘save the legs’ in the swim, so focus mostly on letting the legs catch a ride with the body in a nice high floating position.

Arms in recovery phase

The most important thing to focus on in recovery is to relax the arms. Throwing the arms over the water will put pressure on your shoulders and compromise body position by throwing the body and hips from side to side.

In recovery, the elbow should be the highest point (not the fingers) as the arm travels from the end of the stroke, over the water and to the front again.

If you have a straighter arm recovery and you are not able to change this, just be aware of the stress on your shoulder. A relaxed arm in recovery will go a long way to limit shoulder issues in the long term. Swimming an IRONMAN distance with straight arms in recovery

will be really tough on those shoulders.

Arms in active phase

This is the most important part of your stroke as this will generate the most power for you to move in a forward motion. Once you have found a grip on the water, press the fingertips downwards, focusing on keeping the elbow high. You will push water backwards using the forearm and biceps and lat muscles to power the movement.


Warm up (200m total)

4 x 25m easy crawl focusing on the catch/grip on the water (rest 20 secs per length)

4 x 25m easy crawl focusing on very long strokes (count your arms per length)

Breathing patterns exercise (300m total)

4 x 25m easy crawl breathing every second stroke to the dominant side

4 x 25m easy crawl breathing every second stroke to the less favoured side

4 x 25m easy crawl breathing every 3rd stroke

Main set (800m total)

4 x 200m broken down in the following way:

¼ 50 (rest 15 seconds) + 100 (rest 30 seconds) + 50 (rest 1 minute)

¼ 100 (rest 30 seconds) + 100 (rest 1 minute)

¼ 25 (rest 10 seconds) + 75 (rest 20 seconds) + 75 (rest 20 seconds) + 25 (rest 1 minute)

¼ 50 (rest 15 seconds) + 50 (rest 15 seconds) + 50 (rest 15 seconds) + 50

Cool down (100m total)

2 x 25m easy backstroke

2 x 25m easy crawl

Kathryn Nurse is a Masters Swimming World Champ, a multiple South African Masters record holder and a Silver Medallist in World Masters Open Water. She has represented Western Province in Swimming, Lifesaving, Biathlon and Waterpolo. She has been teaching swimming for more than 25 years. Find her in Cape Town at FUNdemental Swimming school.


Triathlete and coach GLEN GORE share five tips on how to overcome that open water swim nervousness.

1. Practice before race day – don’t expect to feel confident on race day if you have not put

in some open water swim practice beforehand. Leaving the pressure of your first open water swim to race day is not a great idea.

2. Warm-up prior to the start – this does not mean you have to get in and swim (especially if the water is cold). Jumps/arm swings and some running will do the trick – elevate that heart rate so that the muscle is pumping and does not go from 80bpm to 180bpm when the gun goes off.

3. Buy yourself a pair of leak free, clear lens goggles – there’s nothing worse than starting a swim with goggles that leak and fog up. To swim well, you’ve got to see well. Invest in a reliable pair of goggles to help you around that swim course.

4. Start on the sides – not in the middle and not in the front. If you swim wider, you will have more open space and water to yourself . Don’t get caught inside the ‘washing machine’ if you are a nervous swimmer – the sides or right at the back are the best places to position yourself.

5. Survey the swim course before you start the swim and look for large land markers so you are able to sight your way around more easily. Once you are in the water at eye level, the marker buoys are sometimes hard to spot. By focussing on larger land markers, you are able

to plot your way around the course a lot faster. If you know where you are swimming too, you will ultimately feel more comfortable and confident, which translates into you swimming faster.

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