Making the Most of Training in the Open Water

Following the initial thrill and uniqueness of swimming in the open water, the idea of simply putting your head down and swimming can become boring. And perhaps more importantly, doing this on a regular basis, won’t really aid in your training progression. Outside of pure enjoyment, it can become a waste of time.

Below, I’m going to offer 6 ways you can make the most of your time training in the open water.

***short video on the very bottom***

There is no doubt regular open water swim practice is invaluable for beginners. But once you are comfortable swimming in this environment, its value in so far as training, dramatically DECREASES. That is, unless you bring purpose to these swim sessions.

Just as there should be a purpose behind each pool workout, below I’m going to offer a few ways you can make the most of your time swimming in the open water.

#1 – Create a Workout

Don’t just default to putting your head down and swimming non stop with only time or distance as a goal.

Sometimes it’s good to do this to simulate a race situation. HOWEVER, this should not be done EVERY time you get in the open water for a swim.

Instead, create a workout. You won’t be able to totally mirror a pool workout, but you can use one as your basis and modify it to be more feasible to execute in the open water.

Instead of swim sets with a specified distance and pace, say 5 by 100 yards with 20 seconds rest done at 2 minutes per 100, you can use stroke count and rate of perceived exertion or RPE.

Using the example above, in the open water, it would look more like this: 5 x 80 strokes with 20 seconds rest done at an RPE of 7/10 … or whatever your desired effort level.

You can also simplify RPE to easy, moderate and hard efforts.

Additionally, I know some GPS watches can be set to alert you at a certain yardage or time. So for example, your watch can alert you every 100 or 500 yards or whatever you have it set to. I haven’t tried this personally, I keep it easy and count my strokes, but it’s worth a shot.

Regardless of what you do, creating a workout that suits you and your goals is much more valuable when it comes to training than simply swimming without much of a purpose.

#2 – Deep Water Starts

This is a very common way for races to start and it can help to practice what it feels like by doing it for a few reps each time you’re in the open water.

To do this, begin by treading water. Remember you are eliminating any push off from the wall or ground. Then go from vertical (treading water) to horizontal in the water and begin swimming. Just doing this and starting from this position a few times, will help make it more familiar for when it is required on race day.

When practicing this, I recommend starting out by swimming slightly faster to increase your heart rate intentionally and then try to settle into a more comfortable and sustainable pace. More about this in a minute. But this will help simulate what will likely happen when the gun fires on race day.

Real quick before moving on: Here’s a tip from Lucy Charles. Lucy is currently one of the best professional triathletes in the world and is the Kona swim course record holder.

She says, when executing a deep water start, JUST BEFORE the gun is expected to fire, start on your belly and begin kicking lightly in place. Then as the gun fires, you’re already horizontal on the water and ready to accelerate and move forward. It will also help keep other athletes around you from getting too close.

#3 – Recovering on the Fly

Learning to recover on the fly can be an invaluable skill to master. To do this, practice starting fast and then settling into a comfortable and sustainable swim pace. The goal is to intentionally rev your heart rate and practice recovering while swimming and allowing it to drop without having to stop.

This helps you learn how to manage heart rate spikes while swimming on race day. Spikes in heart rate can happen when you intentionally surge, start too fast, or when you’re managing extra chaos in the water… which typically happens at the swim start, at turn buoys and swim exit.

The goal with this is to learn how to recover on the fly without having to totally stop swimming and losing momentum.

#4 – Direction Changes

Practicing turns and intentional directions changes in the water can also be very helpful. There will always be at least 1 turn buoy on race day you will have to manage. And changing direction in the water can be kind of weird at first. After a little practice, it becomes pretty simple.

You can practice by taking X number of strokes and then make a 90 degree turn as if you were making your way around a turn buoy on race day. Counting to a set number of strokes will help keep you accountable to turning at a specified point or as if there were an actual buoy, rather than whenever you feel ready. Don’t forget to practice RIGHT and LEFT hand turns.

For extra credit, find an actual buoy or use a kayak or friend to give you something tangible to swim around as you change directions. This will make it more fun and realistic. If this isn’t possible, count your strokes and turn as suggested above.

#5 – Drafting

Drafting while swimming is a legal tactical strategy that will help save you ~20% of energy. You can also use it as a tool to complete your swim faster. Drafting is something ANYONE can use, no matter how fast or slow you are, but it does take a little practice and getting use to.

To practice, you’ll need at least one swim buddy. To draft properly, you’ll want to swim directly behind the person in front. Get as close as possible to their feet without being in a position where you are constantly touching their feet. The closer you get, the more draft benefit you will receive.

If you touch the swimmer’s feet in front of you every once in a while, it’s no big deal, but if you find yourself doing it regularly, you’re going to irritate them and you may end up getting a big kick in your face.

At first, it will take time getting use to constantly having bubbles in your face, but soon you’ll learn to deal with it.

Ideally, when you’re drafting off of someone, you won’t have to sight or at least you won’t have to sight often. But you will want to make sure the person you have chosen to draft off of knows how to swim in a straight line. So, while you practice drafting, it is a good idea to practice sighting as well. Even if the person you’re drafting is swimming straight, occasionally sighting will help ensure you don’t lose your “free ride,” especially in traffic or darker water.

Once you get good at drafting someone of similar swim speed and ability, practice drafting off of someone who is slightly faster than you. The goal here, is to swim at the same effort level you would if you were swimming by yourself, BUT use the person you’re drafting off of to go faster than you would on your own.

In other words, instead of saving energy and swimming at the same pace you would on your own, you’ll be using the same amount of energy, but you’ll be swimming FASTER, due to the draft, than you would by yourself.

#6 – Stroke Rate

Learning to swim with a higher stroke rate or cadence can make a huge difference especially in the open water environment. Windy days or the rough conditions in the ocean can effect how well you swim especially if you tend to glide with each stroke.

The more you glide when you swim, the more of an opportunity there is for the water or the effects of other swimmers to push you around and slow you down. Gliding and distance per stroke isn’t a big deal in the pool, because there isn’t a ton of water movement, but it’s a different story in the open water. Instead, of spending time gliding in this “idil” or “neutral” position, keep your “foot on the gas” by upping your stroke rate.

The FINIS Tempo Trainer can be a great tool to help with your stroke rate. Click this link if you want to check it out on Amazon. 

One word of caution, when working on developing an ability for a higher stroke rate, you want to make sure you’re not stroking too fast that you’re rushing the catch. If you rush the catch, you run the risk of “windmilling” and this can slow you down significantly.

We covered a lot, but hopefully you now have a few ideas on how you can best use your time in the open water.

If you have any questions, comments or if you would like to learn how we may be about to help you, please leave a comment or message me directly.

Amazon Link: FINIS Tempo Trainer

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