Spatial awareness is a critical talent that can be developed by an open water swimmer and triathlete. If an athlete is not gifted with innate spatial awareness, then they must work on it to improve.
For an open water swimmer and triathlete, what is spatial awareness? Spatial awareness is the ability of an athlete in the open water to understand distances, times and dynamic forces in the water as it relates to their progress or movement.
For example, talented athletes like Thomas Lurz, Trent Grimsey and Petar Stoychev not only know the distance from their current position to the next turn buoy within a remarkably accuracy, but also how long it will take them to get there. Their mind automatically calculates the distance, time and dynamic forces (e.g., currents, tides, waves, turbulence) that it will take them to cover any particular distance in a swim.
For example, experienced swimmers like Matty Moore, Hank Wise and Ky Hurst know precisely how fast or how slow to swim in order to catch a wave coming into an onshore finish. As they swim towards shore, they look back at the oncoming waves and position themselves perfectly to catch the wave into shore.
For example, skilled athletes like Larisa Ilchenko, Martina Grimaldi and Ana Marcela Cunha know – and feel – the optimal position to place themselves behind a pack or at the hips of another swimmer, and then the amount of time they have to hit the accelerator and sprint to victory.
For example, swimmers like Keri-Anne Payne and Ashley Twichell can literally close their eyes and swim straight in nearly any body of water. The propulsion generated from their left side of their body and their right side of their body are nearly the same. Their balance helps them achieve a high level of spatial awareness that is directly transferable to an ability to minimize distance traveled over the course, and the drafting distance behind a lead swimmer.
But if you are not born with the inherent trait of spatial awareness, there are ways you can build up your capabilities.
1. Develop spatial awareness of distance on land.
Go to any body of water and observe your surroundings. Look at the end of a pier or the length of a jetty. Estimate its distance. Look at the distance between lifeguard stands or the number of meters between any two given fixed points. Write them down. Then confirm what the distances are by asking the lifeguards or going online to check on Google maps or Google Earth. Then go back and look at those points again. In your mind, if the length of the pier is 450 meters, then mentally measure that distance when you see something of a similar distance. If the distance between lifeguard stands is 250 yards, then take a mental picture of that distance and utilize it during your races.
2. Develop spatial awareness of distance on land.
After repeatedly testing yourself and learning more about spatial distance on land, try doing the same in the water. The length of the pier or jetty will look differently when viewed from land versus when viewed from the water’s surface. But take similar snapshots in your mind of these distances and utilize it when you are swimming in the oceans.
3. Body surf.
If you live near a coast where there are waves to body surf, swim straight out from shore and try to catch waves as you swim in. This is much more difficult than developing spatial awareness between two fixed points or while you are stationary.
In this case, not only are you swimming towards shore, but the wave is also moving at a different rate to the shore. This is like trying to hit a target as you also move. And it will take plenty of practice. Over and over again to get down so body surfing becomes another tool in your quiver of open water swimming assets.
4. Swim at night with escorts or swim buddies.
There is almost nothing like swimming in the dark or at night. Now spatial awareness becomes an absolute necessity. It is not easy, but take it slow and have a specific plan (e.g., swim to the end of the pier and back, swim no more than 20 meters outside the surf zone, swim to the lights across the lake or along the shore). But before you head out at night, make sure you and your escort have glow sticks and your escort has a whistle.
5. Swim backstroke in the open water.
Do this drill will a friend who can swim alongside or behind you for a certain amount of time or number of strokes. You do not have to swim far, but try swimming backstroke. You may fear nervous, but you will feel the necessity of swimming straight. Your stroke will be purposefully balanced and you may swim cautiously. But this simple drill will immediately impress upon you the importance of swimming straight and balanced with a specific spatial awareness.
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