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Triathlete Blog

Open Water Swimming

By July 24, 2014July 21st, 2015No Comments

The swim portion of triathlon eludes many athletes.  Whether it’s poor form, inexperience or fear, the open water is a completely different beast to overcome when compared to the pool.  Other than the fact that you get wet doing both, I’d argue that pool swimming has very little to do with open water swimming.  They require different technique and mindset.  It would be like riding your trainer and expecting it to translate outdoors in all weather, all terrain.  Just doesn’t happen that way.  Or, not for most athletes.

This year, I offered a weekly open water swim class at a local “open water” swim site.  It’s an old rock quarry that was turned into a giant swimming pool, equipped with a shallow section, water slide, 50 meter long course lap lanes, diving boards and a 14 foot deep end that’s about 300 meters around.  Add in the general public and it’s quite the obstacle ridden open water experience.

And perfect for triathletes.

Ask me how many triathletes signed up for the class.


Why?  There are good reasons (cost, location, times, scared of Coach Liz) and not so good reasons:  It’s the shortest part of the race.  The pool requires driving time.  You have to get wet.  iI don’t like to swim.  But, what most triathletes forget is that triathlon is swim-bike-run.  Not a HOLY SHIT I HAVE TO SWIM SO I HOPE THEY CANCEL THE SWIM followed by a bike-run.  It’s one event.  And if you want to get good at the entire event, you have to improve at all 3 (including THE SWIM!).  Remember: How you feel on the run is determined by what you do on the bike. How you feel on the bike is determined by what you do on the swim.  It’s all connected.

Now, in full disclosure, I am a fake swimmer.  Like most of you, I did not come from a swim background and still have no business in the fast lane.  But I’ve learned a lot that has gone a long way.  From my own experience and from standing on a pool deck every week, sometimes 6 times a week to coach swimmers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds, here are some thoughts on how to improve open water swimming.

Let’s first start with what makes open water unique:

  • No walls (for stronger swimmers, no gain from push off; for weaker swimmers, no pause for breath)
  • No lines (requires sighting, proper body alignment, core strength)
  • The way of the water: chop, current, waves (disrupts rhythm, induces panic, changes stroke)
  • Water temperature: cold or hot (creates a physiological response we might not have control over)
  • Wearing a wetsuit or speedsuit (can change form, feel, body position)
  • Other swimmers (crowding, contact, induces anxiety)

Now think to yourself: when was the last time I actually prepared for any of those conditions during my typical swim workout?  Chances are you go into your little lane at your local pool, swam solo in your swim suit, did a swim/kick/drill/pull warm up, a little mainset with a nice little rest after each and then did a cool down.  Mix in some fins, pull buoy, paddle assistance and you had yourself a nice little tidy swim session.

So here it is, the BIG secret on why your pool pace per 100 meters is not translating to your open water pace.

The reason you’re not good at open water swimming is because you don’t practice open water swimming.

Take a moment and let that sink in.

It’s as simple as that.  Sure, we can spend hours looking at your form, talking about it, thinking about it but bottom line is that if you don’t do it you’re not going to get better at it.  Triathlon is growing, organized swim races are popping up.  Take advantage of any (safe) open water opportunity you can.  They are out there – go looking.  If not, simulate open water in your pool.  Ideally, practice once a week.  Try to swim with a group that contains many different speeds.  On easier days, hang back. On harder days, push to that next pack or person.  Don’t make every day in the open water an easy day or else you will swim easy on race day.

Next.  Here’s what happens in most races.  Adult swims 2-3x a week in the pool for maybe 1500 – 2000 yards at a time.  Most of the time they just like to see how many laps they can go, they don’t know what else to do or it’s what they’ve always done.  They get into open water, the gun goes off and then think SPRINT!  Even though they’ve done very little TRUE sprinting in the pool, they are nervous as heck and surrounded by up to 2000 (think IRONMAN!) other swimmers who are also thinking SPRINT!  This doesn’t end well.  They fade fast, get nervous, panic or waste tons of energy which then costs them energy/time on the bike and the run.  This is why you practice at all speeds in the pool and open water.  Build robust fitness by doing workouts that address everything from short sprints to steady state.  Practice finding all the different gears of effort just as you do in the pool; think long steady swims and all out 25s.

Learn how to breathe.  I’d argue that most swimming problems are breathing problems. Before I even let beginners swim, we cover how to breathe.  You’d be surprised how many “swimmers” actually do not know how to breathe.  First shocking revelation: in swimming, you never hold your breath.  (WHAT?)  Water is going in and out of your mouth at all times.  Underwater you are slowly exhaling or exchanging water, when you roll to breathe, you are doing a quick inhale.  Over-rotating is what happens when you are rolling too far to breathe or taking too long to breathe because you’re not exhaling under water (or, your opposite arm is sinking but that’s a post for another day).

In open water, your breathing pattern should relax you – not cause excess stress, tension or energy waste.  Remember that oxygen is good.  While bilateral breathing is a great way to stretch/balance out during warm ups or cool downs, during races or main sets breathe every other stroke on one side (or switch sides if you feel proficient at both).  This will allow you to get in as much oxygen as possible and create little room for oxygen deprivation.  For whatever reason, many swimmers are reluctant to breathe – perhaps because it requires a good foundation of body position, rotation and when you breathe, all gets thrown off.  But when you hold that breath, you are effectively draining your energy.  Imagine swimming 10 minutes while breathing every 5 strokes.  Now what about every 2 strokes.  Who will emerge feeling fresher?  Moreover, who will emerge feeling more relaxed from the open water?  When you breathe every other stroke, if you miss a breath, it’s not a big deal.  And sometimes in open water we miss breaths due to other swimmers, chop, etc.  When you breathe every 5 strokes and miss a breath – then what?  Panic.  Tightness.  Worry.  Overexertion.  Breathe often, folks.

Learn how to sight.   The other night, at masters, I included sighting in a set of 100s and 50s.  Ask me how many triathletes actually did the sighting.  Now ask me how many needed to work on their sighting.  You will never get good at that which you don’t practice!  Sighting is something you can work on all year round and having watched athletes sight in the pool and open water, trust me, most of you need to work on it.  You need to have a pattern of sighting that actually works for you and not against you – in other words, doesn’t disrupt your rhythm, doesn’t make you sink and actually serves to sight what you’re looking for!  Sighting should be integrated into the breathing cycle; head lifts slowly to reveal “alligator eyes” and then you quickly turn to breathe.  Never lift your head to sight without breathing – this simply causes your back end up sink and then you have to kick harder or expend more energy to bring that back end back up to the surface of the water.  How often to sight?  Usually every 5 – 9 strokes.  If you’re on a reliable set of feet, you can sight less often.

Preview the course and choose sighting points before you get into the water.  I’ll have my swimmers not just look for something at water level but also much higher.  The problem with relying on buoys or water level objects when swimming is that they tend to get lost in the mass of people around you, the landscape background or the sun.  Choose something higher up – a light pole, house, boat, bridge, tree that lines up with the water level object you are looking for.   Choose your line of sight and sighting objects prior to setting out.  This will help you sight more quickly and efficiently.  Remember, too, there is a big difference between ‘sighting’ and ‘searching’.  Searching is what you do when unprepared and can often lead to panic, getting off course, wasted energy because you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for.  Sighting is what you do when you choose an object that is along the best/shortest line to get to a specific point.

Any time you can have someone look at your form in open water, take them up on it.  Have them take video with an iPhone so you can see what you’re doing.  Here’s what I’ve noticed: whatever you are doing wrong in the pool, it is multiplied  – a lot – in open water.  That hitch in your stroke, that tendency to cross over.  As you use your mental energy to focus on safety, other swimmers, obstacles, effort, you forget about form and it shows.  Focus on one thing at a time in open water.  And then, include a few focused drills or strokes in your warm up to address that form issue.

Structure your open water swims like any other swim workout.  There’s a warm up, drill set/pre set, main set and warm down.  Some races do not permit warm ups.  Therefore, every once in awhile, once you feel more comfortable and proficient in open water, try a swim workout without a warm up – go right into a 200 strong.  Vary your speeds throughout the workout, even for Ironman training.  Yet also include some long, steady state swims to get used to the strength, endurance and mindset required to swim long and steady in open water.

One of the biggest hurdles is that it is difficult to find rhythm.  Routinely include “rhythm breakers” in your workout.  For example, I’ll have swimmers jump feet first into the water, as a group, and then go right into some faster swims.  This forces them to disrupt their rhythm with a “messy” start and then establish rhythm as they go from jump to swim.  You can also break up rhythm by requiring them to do 20 strokes fast/20 easy (think “fartlek” in the water).  With a friend, practice swimming towards each other to get used to the disruption of the water and your own rhythm as you swim by each other.  Anything you can do to get more comfortable with rhythm disruption and keep yourself moving forward smoothly will go a long way.

Watch adults at masters and many prefer their own neat little lane where they can swim down the black line.  This is NOTHING like a triathlon.  Open water swimming is all about getting used to other adults all up in your business.  Full body contact.  Every once in awhile, we include sets and starts where the swimmers are instructed to come into contact with another swimmer, pull a foot, yank at goggles or (carefully) get all over each other.  The more you get used to this feeling, the less it will shock you on race day.

What about what happens before you even get into open water?  Practice that too.  Spend some time at your next race watching triathletes prior to the race.  Common sense would suggest they are warming up.  Yet most are socializing or sitting around with absolutely no warm up.  So they get into the water, go harder then they should due to anxiety, excitement or the Pavlovian response most athletes have to start gun.  What happens next?  It lasts about 200 meters before the burn builds up and they fade.  This really happens.  I’ve seen Garmin files to prove it.  Save the socializing for later.  Instead, get in a warm up.  The shorter the race, the longer the warm up.  At the very least, 10 minutes with a few short pick ups will suffice.  Get yourself acclimated to the temperature, taste, current, feel and chop of the water.  With this warm up, you can safely go a little faster at the start.  Yet unless you are gunning for the win in your AG, I’ve found most swimmers do better by easing into ALL distances of the swim in triathlons.  If you can’t warm up?  A quick jog, some arm circles, even stretch cords can be a great way to warm the muscles up.

Some races include a run into the water.  Another thing we rarely practice!  At the quarry, we’ll do some sets where the swimmers run off a long pier and jump (feet first) into the water before going into a “race start” pace.  This gets them used to an elevated heart rate when they enter the water, the rhythm disruption or awkward moment when you start swimming and then the discomfort of a faster pace.  From that sentence alone you can see why practicing the unique demands of open water is a huge advantage!  Practice race starts by running in from the beach to get a better sense of how to run, how far to run and how fast to run.  For most athletes, I would suggest NOT running into the water as it tends to increase heart rate, anxiety from the get go and set you up again for the fizzle and fade.  Instead, walk in, watch the pack as they start swimming (do they veer right, bunch left, etc), next choose your line and then ease into your swim.  Remember, too, when the gun goes off you do not need to go off with it! You can always count to 10 and then start swimming to avoid the chaos of a swim start.

Deep water starts present another unique situation.  These can easily be practiced year round if your pool lane has a deeper end.  Best way to start?  On your stomach with hands lightly sculling.  This allows you to stake out your space, horizontally, as opposed to treading vertically (in which gun goes off and you get a foot to your face).  From on your stomach, gun goes off, you start swimming because you’re already in position to start swimming.  Seamless!

Turning around buoys? Again – practice!  Have a friend swim out a bit, vertical kick or tread, while you swim towards them to practice the most efficient way to turn around a buoy.  Keep it simple (swim around it, whipping your back end with you) or get fancy (corkscrew).  You can also practice this in a pool by turning at the “T” like it’s a buoy (without touching the walls).

Goggle choice seems simple enough but the wrong pair of goggles can really throw off your swim.  Have a few pairs on hand: clear, tinted, different colored lenses.  Try them out in different conditions and see which work best for you.  Anticipate if and where you’ll be swimming into the sun and choose goggles accordingly.

What about wetsuits?  Within the “legal” temperature, I suggest you take any legal advantage possible.  That is unless you have the tendency to overheat, at which point you need to make a safety call.  Sleeveless or full sleeved is something you need to experiment with if possible.  Smaller women who come to swimming later in life tend to swim faster with sleeveless suits because they do not have the shoulder/arm strength to recover their arm above water when it’s covered in neoprene.  Lifelong swimmers tend to do better with full sleeves.  Each suit will swim different, feel different, fit different and generate a different amount of buoyancy and speed for you.  Many stores have wetsuit rental available – try out a few suits, put them through some test sets in the pool or open water and see which one works for you.  Same goes for speedsuits.

Hopefully you’ve gained some ideas on what you can work on to improve your open water swimming.  Even if open water isn’t available to you, take some of these concepts and practice them in the pool.  Practice doesn’t make perfect but it does make much better preparation which allows you to perform better overall!