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Developing a swimmer’s sixth sense

Last week I was lucky enough to meet Karen Pickering. For those who don’t know, Karen is one of GB’s most successful pool swimmers ever with 35 major championship medals to her name, primarily over 100m and 200m freestyle. Among other things, she is now an ambassador for Human Race helping to promote their open water swimming series. You can read my interview with Karen here.

Another thing we talked about, which isn’t in the interview, was whether she still swam and if she trained with a club. I was curious because I know what trouble relatively average club swimmers can sometimes have when they try to swim in public sessions. I assumed that for someone of Karen’s speed, it must be even worse.

“I’ve swum since I gave up swimming, if you see what I mean,” she answered to the first part of the question, but she hasn’t joined a club as she isn’t interested in masters swimming. Instead she trains in a 20m pool at a golf club.

Now, 20m might sound rather short but Karen sees a big plus.

“All those turns and push-offs are good for my bum,” she says.

She’s also found a time of day to swim when not too many other people are in the pool. She does admit though that other swimmers can find it intimidating to share a lane with her but says she’s the last person they should worry about.

“I might be moving a bit faster and making a bit more splash than your average breaststroker but I take up less room and, more importantly, I know where everyone else in the pool is, what they are doing and how fast they are going. If someone three lanes down from me gets out to go to the toilet then I know, and I know when they get back in.”

She says she’s developed this sense over years of training. It’s also something I’ve heard other swimmers talking about and experienced myself, although perhaps not to the same level. I’m usually quite aware of what’s happening in my own lane and sometimes those either side. It’s not just a case of looking around you – it’s almost as if you feel where they are, how fast they are going and what they might do next. It’s like a sixth sense for swimmers.

It’s a useful skill to have. It can help you know when it’s safe to overtake or when you need to stop to let a faster swimmer past. And it’s transferable, to an extent, to open water. If you’re swimming in a pack or trying to draft or pace off other swimmers you might want to adjust your stroke rate to match theirs. You want to be able to sense when they’ve increased their effort level or are holding back. You should be able to respond to changes in pace and the manoeuvres swimmers are undertaking to position themselves for turns or a sprint finish. There’s a safety element too. If you’re swimming with others (which we recommend) you ought to know if one of them is struggling and needs assistance.

I don’t know if these skills can be actively developed or whether you only build them through experience but being aware they exist and paying attention to what other swimmers are doing should help. So, next time you’re in the water, don’t just think about what you’re doing but be alert to everyone else. Don’t be the swimmer who’s oblivious to everything around you, ploughing your relentless path up and down, regardless of who else is in the water.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.