Swimming with Porpoise

As competitive swimmers, we’re all familiar with how you start a race: You dive off the block, glide and kick (in streamline!), then breakout and start SWIMMING. As a competitive triathlete or open-water swimmer, however, you have a lot more options (and more challenges) when the gun goes off.

You might have to start from the deck of a boat, for example, as Glenn and I did this summer for a one-mile charity swim in Long Island Sound. This was not just a little dinghy or Boston whaler, but a BOAT, with railings and a slippery, sloping, heaving deck – and a LOONG way down to the water. Glenn dived. I sat down and slid. Glenn beat me. Again.

Sometimes you might have to do a standard dive from a retaining wall or dock. This is sort of the same as a block start, except that several hundred other people are on your block. You want your goggles on tight, and your elbows in defense mode.

Most often, though, you line up with a few hundred other athletes squeezed shoulder to shoulder and front to back, on a sandy beach, and you have to get through 10 or 20 or even 30 yards of shallow water to a depth where you can start swimming.

Some athletes (usually those who haven’t checked out the water depth prior to the race), try to SWIM as soon as the gun goes off. If you’ve ever tried to swim freestyle in a baby pool or your bathtub, you know why this isn’t a smart way to start.

Most athletes choose to RUN through the shallow water. They splash their feet, thrash their arms, and crash through the water in a mad dash to swimmable water. When 200 people do this at once, the result is a lot of stumbling and staggering, a lot of stubbed toes, and a great photo op because of all the spray and action. There’s also a lot of resistance. If you’ve ever tried to RUN across the shallow end of a pool, you know that the water grabs at every part of you, and that the faster you try to run, the tighter it holds on. Take a look at our video clip to see what happens when you try to RUN through shallow water.

There’s another, smarter option to starting an open-water swim or triathlon, and that’s to PORPOISE your way to deep water. Given the right bottom conditions, porpoising is the fastest, most streamlined, most energy-efficient way for you to start and finish your race. Here’s how to do it…

At the start:
1. When the gun goes off, run to the point where you are about knee deep in the water.
2. Bend your knees, lean forward, and do a shallow porpoise dive, with arms and hands extended, into the water. Send your hands and body FORWARD, not down. Keep your head tucked between your shoulders. You can peek up a bit with your eyes (not your whole head!) to see where you’re going. Let your body glide in streamline until your hands hit the sand or bottom. STREAMLINE is the key word here. Let your body sail through the water and think about how much less RESISTANCE you are encountering than your competitors who are RUNNING!
3. Use your hands and arms to support your body as you gather your legs up, plant your feet, and get ready for another porpoise dive. You might need to balance on one knee before you can get both feet planted for a new dive. You’ll be in deeper water this time, so dive up and over the water, sending your body FORWARD.
4. Glide in streamline as your hands head down to the sand to catch yourself and prepare for another dive.
5. When you reach water that is about chest deep, take a last, strong porpoise dive and START SWIMMING. You’ll probably find that you got to deep water slightly ahead of the RUNNERS, that you had MORE FUN getting there, and that you started swimming with a BIG BOOST OF POWER from your final porpoise dive. Cool.

You can get the same advantages on your way to the finish line. Here’s what to do in reverse…

At the finish:
1. Swim until you are about waist deep in the water. CAUTION: Water depth is deceptive when you’re horizontal. Your tendency will be to start porpoising too soon, when the water is too deep. This is NOT fun or fast, so swim till your fingertips can almost touch the bottom on your pull – or until you think you can easily stand up and sweep your arms out over the water.
2. Stand up, plant your feet, and dive up and over the water.
3. Glide in streamline till your hands hit the sand.
4. Get your feet up under you and porpoise again.
5. Continue until the water is about calf deep, then stand up and run – high step – through the water to the swim finish.

Try porpoising at your next lake swim or race. You’ll be amazed at how much faster this is than running and staggering in and out. Practice porpoising out and in before your race so that you become familiar with the bottom and so you’ll know the best point to start (and stop) swimming.

Now get out there while the summer lasts and GO SWIM IN A LAKE!