All You Need to Know About Open Water

All You Need to Know About Open Water Swimming with Roberto Baldassarre

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Below is an excellent interview with Roberto Baldassarre on open water swimming. Roberto Baldassarre breaks down all you need to know about open water swimming. His answers are focused around one of his recent research articles:

Here is his complete body of work and his team at the University of Rome.

1. Is open-water swimming increasing in popularity?

Certainly, the number of participants of open-water swimming events has substantially increased in the last years in both conventional (5, 10. 25-km) and ultra-endurance distances. The spirit of emulation and the challenge to overcome human limits has led an increase in the number of participants. Furthermore, after the introduction of the 10-km event at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the popularity of open-water swimming was further increased.

There are many races of different distance promoted by the international and national swimming federations for elite, master or amateur athletes. However, the most fascinating races in open-water swimming world are the races in solo condition, you against yourself. The “English Channel Swim” is one of the oldest open-water races in solo and nowadays represents one of most important ultra-swim races in the world.

2. What can open-water races do to make open-water swimming safe for the participants, especially the novice?

The safety is the priority in all sport events and mostly in open-water swimming.

All swimmers remember the tragic event of 2010, when the swimmer Francis Crippen died during the last race of FINA World Cup. In this specific case, several hypothesis arises following Crippen’s death: warm water, cardiac abnormality or uncontrolled asthma induced by exercise in unfavourable environmental conditions. After this episode, there was an update of FINA regulation, introducing the range of water temperature (16 to 31 °C). Moreover, it was started to use the multi-lap course (2,500-m long) during principal events such as: World Championships or Olympic Games.

The multi-lap course was an important innovation for safety that allowed a better surveillance on all swimmers. A sufficient number of safety boats and lifeguards around the lap course is essential for the safety of a race.

Moreover, the development of sport micro-technologies can further help the safety during open-water swimming races. Tracking devices that include the Global Positioning System (GPS) may be improve safety by establishing and checking real-time the position of the swimmers with live feedbacks.

In some amateur races is compulsory to use a “safety buoy” recommended by the organization. The buoys have to be visible and homologated in order to report the positions of all athletes and to avoid any incident. A simple tool for safety that it can be introduced in all open-water swimming competitions for amateur and elite.

Other two factors for safety are: water pollution and marine animals. The pollution is not only a problem of swimming but an international environmental problem. Which is why I want to mention Lewis Pugh, the first man to swim in every ocean in the world to draw attention on vulnerable ocean ecosystems.

Regarding the marine animals, I don’t mean just to the shark attacks but probably the jellyfishes are the real nightmare of swimmers during a race.

The organizing committee must evaluate all these elements before to select the place for a competition.

Finally, some advices for the novice swimmers: ask around to local swimmers about water temperature, pollution and marine animals, go online and do some research, and lastly ask to those questions to the referee in the technical meeting prior to the race.

3. What can swimmers do to make sure they are safe during open-water swimming?

In my opinion, training is the first advice for the novice open-water swimmers. During training, each athlete (novice, amateur, master or elite) learns their limit and how the body and mind responds in a stress situation. Every swimmer (novice or expert) can finish a 50-m in a swimming pool, but not all swimmers are able to finish a 25 km in an ocean.

Around the world there are several type of race with different lengths. My advice for the novice athlete is to start with a short distance races (under 5 km), races in warm water and races that allow wetsuits (for the buoyancy). Only after different races with other swimmers, try the races in solo condition selecting a good support crew.

My second advice regarding the training in open-water (rivers, lakes, oceans or water channels): never train alone, training in a group and report the position with a buoy.

4. How is open-water swimming physiological stress different than pool swimming?

Pool swimming is an aquatic-sport that includes 17 Olympic events, from 50-m to 1500-m lasting from 21 second to approximately 15 minutes, whereas there is only one open-water event of 10-km lasting about 2 hours. In my opinion, we are talking of two different kind of sports. The metabolic demands of pool swimmers and open-water swimmers are totally different. Pool swimmer are trained to develop high power in a short amount of time; whilst open-water swimmers are trained to endurance and are able to sustain a high percentage of power for many hours.

Another physiological stress of open-water swimming is the cold water and the hypothermia. Hypothermia is common risk during this kind of competition. Expert swimmers training in cold water need to learn how to counter hypothermia. Open-water swimmers have a unique combination of fatness and fitness that allows them to maintain a high level of heat production and retain it below significant levels of insulation

Although, several pool swimmers have tried to perform an open-water race, only Oussama Mellouli has won an Olympic medal in both pool and open-water events

An example is the Italian swimmer Gregorio Paltrinieri, an excellent pool swimmer but is he going to be a good open-water swimmer?

Open-water swimmers are able to adapt to different environmental conditions and to their opponent’s race strategy and this event can be considered an open-skill sport compared to pool swimming.

5. What factors influence open-water swimming velocity and results?

Substantially, environmental conditions and racing strategies are two type of factors that influence open-water swimming performance. The environmental conditions (water temperature, tides, currents and waves) have an overall impact on performance influencing tactics and pacing.

The second factor is the race strategy. Contrary to other endurance races (i.e. marathon) where athletes race also for world records or best performances, open-water swimmers prefer to maintain top positions during the race to control the opponents rather than accomplish new records.

A characteristic of open-water swimming is to swim in group with 20 or 60 swimmers in the same time, while the pool swimmers compete in a personal lane (wide 2.5 m) protected with lane ropes. Swimming directly behind or at the side of another swimmer reduces the energy cost of aquatic locomotion through the drafting effect. During the Rio Olympic race, the lead group was unified until the last buoy at 350-m to the arrival, and only 5 seconds divided the first from the 10th athlete.

6. Do you have any suggestions for mimicking these factors if a swimmer can’t train in open water?

There are several exercises that replicate the open-water situations in a swimming pool.

Swimming at the side of another swimmer in a lane, simulate the drafting swimming directly behind another swimmer. Other exercises may be conducted, for example removing the ropes and setting several buoys near the corners of the pool.

Two are the situations to replicate: swimming in a pack and drafting scenarios.

Finally simulate the feeding strategies and how to swim during the findings.

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