Surviving A River Swim

This year’s Triathlon National Championship that took place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama had a swim that took place in the Black Warrior River.  Now, if you have read some of the stuff I’ve written about open water, one of the most challenging types of open water swims is one with an strong predictable current. There are certainly all types of challenges in open water, but a strong current can be the most frustrating as it can be hard to stay on course, or even make forward progress in some instances. So here is some of my advice in dealing with a river swim and I will use the National Championships as my example.

untitledScope the course. This is the most obvious and maybe the most overused advice out there. Yes, obviously you should know the course before you enter the race. Unfortunately, what most people do when looking at the swim course is look at the turn buoys, ask which direction to swim around said buoys, and then hop in the car to check out the bike course. This is fine for a swim without any real challenges, but if that is your idea of scoping the course for an ocean or river swim, then you could be in for a world of hurt on raceday.

For a river, obviously the first thing that you want to know is the direction of the current. For Nationals, the river was flowing Northeast to Southwest. This means that initally you would be swimming with the current, and then turn into the current for the long straighaway. Now generally speaking the current flows faster in the center of a river and slower next to the shoreline, except when the river is at a bend. In a river bend, the river flows slowest on the outside of the bend and fastest on the inside (a vortex flow if you want to read more). For the sake of this race, there isn’t much of a bend in the river where you are racing, so I would swim the first leg as close to the buoys as possible in order to take advantage of the current.

Next thing you want to notice is the wind. Rivers can often channel the wind and that can often exaggerate or nulify the river current as the wind will create a surface current. Not having been there on race day, I can’t really say what the wind was like, but it needs to be addressed. If the wind is with the current, you will not only need to look for slower current, but also hide from the wind if possible. If the wind is opposite the current, you will be able to swim a more direct route through the swim.

untitled2So back to the race. After getting a nice little ride to the first turn buoy, you want to take the turn as tight as possible and aim your sights for the inside of the next turn buoy. This is because the current will be taking you to the outside of the next turn buoy. By aiming to the inside you will minimize how far off course you are taken.

At the next turn, you want to take the buoy wide. You are heading directly into the current and will want to get as close to the shoreline as possible. More importantly though, you want to find someone to draft behind. Like cycling into a headwind, nothing can reduce the effort better than a good pair of feet to sit behind. This will be where the good swimmers distance themselves from the weaker swimmers, but by hiding from the current, you can minimize the effort.

Heading into the final turn, you want to swim past the buoy and most likely to the outside of the pack. The idea is to swim beyond the buoy in the lighter current far enough to offset what the stronger current will do to you as you cross back over the river. Once you have swum past the buoy and made the turn, don’t aim for the finish, but aim for the shoreline directly in front of you. As you swim, the current will bring you back onto the course and you will not need to anything more than try and swim straight. If you errored in judgement, try to error in the side of swimming too far past the last turn buoy as the current will be your friend.  

Of course how much to adjust your swim will be determined by how well you observe the conditions and plain old experience. One thing is for sure though, taking a quick glance at a tough course to see the turn buoys just won’t get it done if you want to have a great race. Happy swimming.

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