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Tips for masters swimming galas

Last weekend I took part in a masters swimming gala at Bracknell – my first in about four years. It was a bit of a shock to the system. Swimming short distances in a pool as fast as you can is very different to swimming long distances in open water – the longest event on offer at Bracknell was 200m. It requires an alternative mental approach and taxes your body in a totally different way.
However, while I wouldn’t want H2Open readers to suddenly give up the open water in favour of the pool, I would recommend giving pool racing a bash, so I thought in this week’s blog I’d share some tips for masters swimming.
The first obstacle to pool racing in the UK is that you need to be a competitive member of the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) to take part. Unfortunately, there is no individual membership of the ASA (as far as I know) so you have to join through a masters swimming club that’s affiliated to the ASA (some open water clubs, such as the Serpentine, are also affiliated to the ASA). Joining a club may be a good thing in itself but training with a masters squad is not to everyone’s liking. There is a work-around here in that some clubs allow people to become non-training members. This means you can compete for the club without having to go to their training sessions. Some triathletes do this as they prefer to do their swim training with their (non-ASA affiliated) triathlon clubs.
The second task is to find an event. These are mostly listed on the ASA website but may take a bit of effort to find. If you join a masters club you may find there are certain events in the calendar that they go to each year, or you can ask for recommendations. If you enter with a club you can also take part in the relays, which is where most of the fun is anyway.
The next step is to develop some pool racing skills. Starts and turns make a huge difference in short races so it’s well worth making the effort to learn how to do a competitive racing dive or backstroke start. Tumble turns are not a legal requirement but will save you lots of time if you can do them properly. I saw races at the weekend that were won by a “slower” swimmer because they gained so much at the turns.
You have to learn the rules too. Freestyle is the easiest in this respect but you can still be disqualified for a false start or moving on the block before the start signal. For breaststroke and butterfly you have to touch the wall with both hands simultaneously with your hands at the same level and your stroke has to be compliant with the rules throughout. In backstroke you have to stay on your back, except at turns, where you can flip onto your front if you’re doing a tumble turn (but not if you’re doing a touch turn). Reading the rules will help but you have to practise complying with them in training so it’s automatic in a race.
Perhaps the hardest part is learning the art of pacing. Even 100m is not an all-out sprint. You have to keep something back for the last part of the race but not slip too far behind at the beginning. When you hit the wall at the end (and you have to practise hitting it hard and fast) you want it to feel like it’s absolutely the last stroke you could have taken at that pace but it’s all too easy to misjudge the effort and find yourself tying up with ten metres to go.
Personally I find pool racing makes me much more nervous than open water swimming. If you make a mistake on your start, turns or pacing then it’s pretty much all over. There are only six of you racing at a time (sometimes eight) and it feels like everyone else in the pool is watching you (although they probably aren’t). There are lots of uniformed judges and referees walking around with clipboards ready to note down any transgression of the rules. You also get some extremely fast (and fast looking) swimmers at masters competitions, and that can be a little intimidating. However, most organisers seed heats by entry times and there is a wide range of abilities taking part so as long as you are honest with your entry times you should be swimming against people of similar speeds.
It is probably the case that the majority of competitive masters swimmers took part in galas as kids but it’s by no means all and it’s certainly not a requirement. There’s no reason why open water swimmers shouldn’t take part. It’s worth it to improve your range of aquatic skills and also to experience what swimming absolutely flat out in clear water really feels like. I wouldn’t say it beats the joy of open water swimming but it’s still pretty good (once you’ve got your breath back). Also, developing a bit of speed in the pool could help you with those sprint finishes in open water.
 
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And here’s a video from Bracknell Masters – it’s not me and the quality suffered during the Youtube upload, but you get the idea.