Monday, February 1, 2016

Swimming in the Front

by Gina Kehr

I know, I know, many of you reading this may be saying to yourself, “What use is this blog as I will never swim in the front.” It is true that if you are a newer swimmer there is a lot that comes with swimming and swimming at the front of the group is not something you think about. But if you read on I do think you will find a nugget or two to take with you.

I used to get so fired up for the swim at most of my races. But it wasn’t until I learned how to be a smarter swimmer that I really got confident with my swim ability. When I first started triathlon, I was three years past my collegiate swim career and I was still thinking like a swimmer: my strategy for races was to put my head down and just go like hell from the start.

As my career progressed, my strategy stayed the same: line up in the front and when the gun goes off it was game on. Sprint the first 200 meters and then hold on for life as we break from the main pack. I would get out of the water panting like crazy, grab my bike and start riding the hardest I could, legs screaming at me the whole time (I am pretty sure there was smoke showing as my legs approached ignition level). I would get passed, again and again and again. It would take a good 8 minutes to get myself under control. The amount of time I would lose in the beginning of the bike seemed to be worse than the gain I had in the swim. So I sought out advice. I talked to several different coaches. The advice was… go easier on the swim. My thought was, “What?!? No way! There has to be another solution.”

As luck would have it I become injured (broken arm needing reconstructive surgery), then pregnant. Those two events took me away from the sport for some time. It would be 2.5 years before I raced again. With the broken arm not quite back to where it was, my swim ability suffered. Or, to be more accurate, my confidence in my swim suffered. It wasn’t until I was on the start line in Kona again after missing two years that I came up with my new strategy on how to swim in the front. Without my “gut it out” swim strength behind me, I learned to swim the same speed but did not waste as much energy. Here is how.

Line Up

  • Old way: I used to line up right next to everyone. Front row, straight shot... ready to battle for the first the buoy.
  • New way: Second row. Of course I strategically placed myself by the fast swimmers. I knew who they were and I definitely sought them out.

The Start

  • Old way: As soon as that gun went off, I put my head down and blast away! I was focused on the buoy and would swim as if it is the 50 meter time trial at Olympic trials. It was a fight for position.
  • New way: Gun goes off and I wait a bit. Head up swim a bit, let the person in front of me take off like a rocket and I gently roll out with her for a few seconds. Put my head down and make sure I am still so close I can barely move. My leader’s feet may be at my chest, my arms are outside her feet and I let them pull me out.

The First 200

  • Old way: Sprint until I can not sprint anymore and hope that fitness will keep me in the game. I only focused on who was near me and tried to stay with them. I never “looked” anywhere else. Sometimes I made the group sometimes I did not.
  • New way: After I have been pulled out I lift my head again and see if there are any pockets or openings. I focus on what is going on and if the pack is splintering. The water is moving so fast that if you relax you really can make some strategic placement within the pack or jump to another pack. This is where the hardest swimming may be happening as well as biggest gain to the group you end up with.

The Draft

  • Old way: Mostly to the side on the hip and I would would have no one to my right or left pending on the side I end up on. I always had the mindset that I since I was a strong swimmer I would rather not deal with getting hit so I would choose to swim out to the side out of harm’s way.
  • New way: Directly behind so much so that I would have to swim with my hands on either side of the person’s feet at times. I also try to be a little more towards the middle than on either side so I can be in a good position for the turn. Maybe one or two people in from the side.

The info above is where I made my biggest changes. Other areas you need to consider when swimming from the front are:

The Turn
This is an area where a group can easily split up so it is important that you are thinking about where you want to be when approaching the turn sooner than later. The turn will have athletes speeding up, hitting, kicking and down right fighting to get around it. You can get hung up on the ropes easily. I like to be on the inside, one or two people in. I like to come at an angle, however, coming in where you have to make a hard right is not a problem as long as you are prepared and ready. I use my inside hand as my rudder to help guide me around the buoy and whip my body around so I can quickly make the turn and go. Getting around the buoy quick is key. Be ready for a lift in pace in and out of the buoy. The biggest place people make mistakes is not thinking ahead and getting caught off guard which is how you can easily get dropped.

The Finish
Another area where the pack will lift in pace is the finish. Unless you are going for a swim prime there is no need to get caught up in this nonsense. A lot of jockeying may start to happen; just remain calm, make sure to have a lift in your kick if you have been doing little with your legs and sit in all the way to the end. Exit the water, smile, rinse if they have hoses and be on your way knowing you just had your fastest swim with the least amount of work.


Gina Kehr was a professional athlete for 15 years, competing in events ranging from Olympic Trials to Ironman World Championships, where she achieved five Top 10 finishes in her career. She coaches athletes of all levels and all distances. Her experience comes from her journey as a novice age group triathlete who quickly worked her way to becoming an established professional triathlete. Gina also works with the Stanford Tri team, is a coach with Stanford Masters and leads a squad of short and long course athletes. You can read more about Gina at AffinityMultisport.com.
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