Train the way you race
The first step to building confidence is ensuring that you can actually go your race distance in practice. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be all at once—just make sure you can sustain the total time it will take you to do the swim in the event. If the 1,500-meter (1,640-yard) swim in an Olympic-distance race will take you about 25 minutes, and you can swim 400s in eight minutes, do three 400s with 10–30 seconds rest.
Next, be sure you integrate race-specific efforts into your pool sets. “The biggest mistake triathletes make is that they go swim for 30 minutes straight as their workout,” Rodrigues says. “That’s the worst thing you can do. It has no value once you do it five or six times—you’ve reached the maximum training benefit. You need to introduce some intervals and work different systems.”
The same goes for a Masters practice where you’re just swimming one pace the whole time. “Just easy, social swimming isn’t going to help you be a better swimmer in a race,” says San Diego-based coach Jim Vance of Training Bible Coaching. “Race efforts, practiced regularly, will help you with that.”
Make your efforts reflect how you plan to swim in a race, because nothing works if you haven’t prepared for it. If going out hard is a part of your strategy, practice it in training. Instead of swimming 10×200 at 80 percent effort, do the first 50 or 75 of every 200 all out then roll into your comfortable race effort. If starting out easy and building into your pace is your approach, do 4×400 descending so your last interval is the fastest.
Ideally you can practice in open water once a week for a few months during race season. But if you don’t have access, you can still simulate it in the pool by doing things such as Tarzan Drill (head above the water), swimming with no walls or sighting off an object on the pool deck. Vance suggests wearing your wetsuit during a pool set and doing fast starts with groups to simulate race-day efforts. “If you’re paying to be a part of a swim program, tell them what you want and need so they can provide it,” Vance says. “Hopefully you can get into a group that is willing to do some open-water simulations in the pool, with lane lines pulled out and buoys thrown in. But there are also camps to address this need in training, just like a cycling or base training camp.”