Open Water Swim Training for Your Pool Workouts

I’m often asked about how to prepare for an open water swim in a swimming pool. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. They are very different venues. It is sorta like preparing for a mountain bike ride on an indoor trainer. It’s pretty hard to practice certain skills in such a structured environment. There are, however, a few things you can do that can help prepare you for certain aspects of an open water swim.


Bilateral Breathing – Learning how to breathe comfortably on both sides will help you in open water in two ways. First and foremost, bilateral breathing helps to keep your stroke balanced. This means that both arms are pulling with about the same force and one arm isn’t doing anything drastically different than the other arm. Doing this will keep you swimming in a straight (or straighter!) line.One of the biggest problems in open water swimming is trying to stay on course, so the straighter you teach yourself to swim in a pool, the better off you will be in the lake. Bilateral breathing also gives you the ability to switch your breathing to the side that you can sight better from and/or have the fewest obstacles with. Often in ocean swims (or any rough swim for that matter) you will find the need to breathe away from the source of the waves. It gives you a clearer shot at a breath without swallowing water. It will also allow you to switch sides when you have the sun in your face and are unable to see anything.  This can be critical for sighting the course.


Head Up Swimming – In order to keep yourself lined up with the buoys, you will need to lift your head every so often and target the next buoy to swim towards. While I don’t recommend swimming for any extended period of time in a race with your head up as it can be exhausting, from time to time it will be needed. To prepare for this, pick a small object at the other side of the pool and swim the length of the pool with your eyes locked on that object. Try not to throw your head from side to side as this can lead your body and get you swimming off of the straight line you’re striving for. Repeat this drill a number of times, changing the object each time. Don’t always pick an object directly in front of your lane either. Rare is the day in an open water swim that every buoy is directly in front of you. Track an object off to your left and right as well.


Drafting – Probably the easiest way to pick up some free speed is to learn how to draft behind someone. Just like cycling, the person in front of you breaks through the water and creates a current around and behind them. Slip into that current and it can have the effect of swimming down a river. Learning to draft in a pool can be achieved in a few different ways. If you swim with a group and circle swim, then instead of leaving 5 or 10 seconds apart, leave right on the feet of the person in front of you. Be sure to ask permission so they know what you are doing as some will get annoyed pretty quick if they don’t understand your objective. Try to stay within a few inches of their feet without touching their feet. I have seen fights start over people touching other’s feet too often. As you’re swimming, try and feel the immediate current that rolls off the person in front of you. That little pocket is where you want to stay. As you get more comfortable in the draft, try closing your eyes while staying in the draft, using only the feel of that current to keep you close/behind the draftee. This will become very important when you hit the open water, as most bodies of water tend to be cloudy and you may not be able to see the person’s feet in front of you.

If you’re practicing drafting as a group try forming a pace line. As everyone gets better, a great set is to rotate the pace line in reverse. That is to have to person at the end of the line sprint to the front in one pool length and then maintain the group pace for the next length as the next person overtakes them. Once overtaken, sit in and recover until you are at the back of the line again. You can also try pack swimming if you have enough people. Cram everyone together and swim one length at a time on a short rest. Be sure to alternate who swims in the front and who drafts.


Darkened Goggles –  For those who have trouble swimming in a straight line or get a little spooked when they can’t see anything in the open water, you might want to swim a couple of sets in some darkened goggles. Coat the out side of an older pair of goggles with black spray paint so that no light can come in from the front or sides. Then, take a key or knife and nick the paint (once it dries) so that all you have to see out of is that little scrape on the goggle. Now go swim in a straight line. If you can still easily see the black line at the bottom then you made the scrape too big.


Start Imitation –  The swim start is often the scariest part of the entire event. Arms and legs flying in every direction in an area that’s far too crowded. While there is no way to prepare for everything that can happen at the start, getting yourself comfortable in that environment will prevent you from panicking if you get in a tough position on race day. Get a bunch of your friends (the more the merrier) and get in the deep end, ideally in the middle of the pool (you may need to take a lane rope out for this). From the middle of the pool race everyone to the wall, leaving all at once. The fewer the rules the better. Don’t be scared to grab the person in front of you and dunk them or whatever it takes to put your hand on the wall first. Repeat this a number of times, but be sure not to get too mean out there and hurt someone. The idea is to get more comfortable in a crazy environment not to create enemies.


While each one of these drills can help with certain aspects of an open water swim, there is no substitute for the real thing. If you have a lake or river you can practice in safely, try and add that in periodically as a part of your training.



Enjoy your swim!




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