Signed up for a Spartan race anywhere in Europe? Then the obstacle I’ll talk about today could be a standout surprise for you this season.
When I set off the finish line at last year’s London Super, I knew the obstacles would be tough to make up for the lack of hills. We expected mud and trudging through water, but nobody expected it to be deep. So when we came to a small lake, there were many gasps as people realised they’d have to either swim across and without a life vest (added in later races) or they’d have to drop down and do 60 burpees, double the usual penalty.
Many were unprepared or simply couldn’t swim. It broke me down as well; I was never a good swimmer, nor was I planning to compete in the water. Ever. But there I was, slowly bobbing along, already feeling exhausted.
In retrospect, I understand the inclusion of swimming as an obstacle. This is Spartan for Christ sake, swimming should be a part of every race. I’m actually disappointed that the Spartan World Championships allow you to wear a life vest during swimming.
My feelings on swimming as an OCR obstacle aside, let’s discuss how you can prepare for it. Given how few racers were ready for this, dominating the swimming obstacles could help you get to the podium this OCR season.
In order to dominate swimming as an obstacle, an athlete should first:
- Be able to swim for extended amounts of time in the murkiest of waters after they’ve already been running and performing for miles. In one of last year’s races, I had to swim three times (not once!) for 100 years or so in cold and deep water.
- Be prepared to swim without a life vest, especially in the UK and Europe where laws around racing aren’t as strict as in the US. There is actually a good way to know if there will be any swimming in the race: check your waiver! If there’s a bullet point about life-death scenarios in deep water, get ready to swim.
- Be prepared to lose to a weaker runner, yet an otter in disguise.
- Choose gear that will make your swim easier: shoes that drain water well (All terrain series seem to be perfect here), compression gear and no tangling items.
“Those who fail to plan, plan to fail” – Benjamin Franklin
I could state the obvious that you should incorporate 1-2 days a week of purely swimming sessions into your training. You should. Do it. But what matters more than quantity of sessions, is your swimming technique. You have to master water movement and be prepared to do it in cold water, then continue running in your cold and wet gear.
The Technique: Swim More Slowly and Use the Total Immersion Technique
Choose a style which allows for the greatest energy efficiency, and which won’t leave you gasping for air. Some triathletes might disagree but the key to swimming with less effort is to actually swim more slowly.
This will reduce resistance of your body’s drag and increase the propulsion force. It is perhaps the hardest thing you will have to learn on your journey to effortless swimming. In fact, it took me almost 4 months to finally relax, put the ego aside and listen to my swimming coach. Swimming slowly was a game changer and one of those things that go against the grain but work without fail.
To swim effortlessly like this you should:
- Penetrate the water with fingers instead of slapping into the water with a hand
- Focus on feet movements and long strokes rather than trying to do them fast
Makes sense right?
As for the Total Immersion technique, you can view how effortless and energy-saving it is:
The simple way to master this technique is to stop belly-flopping. Instead focus on shifting your body side to side without a holdup in what is considered to be a swimming norm. It’s a bad norm.
Another couple of points to add to the bullet list above:
- Keep your head in line with your spine at all times
- Launch your body forward with slow and long turns of your shoulder movement instead of relying purely on feet and arms.
This is the single easiest way to upgrade your swimming and it might just add extra minutes to your results.
What to Do If You’re a Beginner
Going back to my horrible swimming experience from the start of this post… Because I was so out of shape in terms of swimming, the Total Immersion Technique focusing on efficient movement was out of the question for me.
What worked instead was a simple frog stroke movement. You might say ‘it is too slow’ and that’s true. However, it keeps you relaxed and ready to run those last miles like a Spartan. So if you’re a beginner athlete and running in an open heat, it is highly recommend to avoid flailing your arms in breast and butterfly strokes and instead focusing on this simpler, slower technique.
Moreover for non-swimmers who dread doing atrocious amounts of burpees, chances are there will be a life vest and a rope under the water available to keep you floating. And since time is of less importance – take plenty of it to help yourself finish strong.