Use Open Water Workouts as Your Core of Triathlon

By Bill Floyd | June 15, 2009, 12 a.m. (ET)
In the world of triathlon, one looks for ways to strengthen and to go faster than they have with the same training, or an area that is new. If your plans are correct and you use progressive overload, zone intensities, and Borg’s Rate of Perceived Exertion, you will get to the point where your speed is respectable, and you will probably begin to place. However, to give you strength to endure all three sports during a race, your core strength has to be enhanced to the point where you will not falter.

In open water swimming, one’s conditioned body is still being subjected to the many variable sequences of what one goes through in the course of a triathlon. Self corrections are taking place constantly, and your body accommodates, using the various muscle groups to bring together the many aspects of correct form, speed, and sighting so the course will be taken and pushed behind, yet, with a higher element of strength.

With the straight line of a torpedo, rather than a slightly bent body or one swimming uphill, the athlete is still pulling in his abs, using his lats, deltoids, tendons, ligaments, and just about every muscle part on his body … if he is doing it the right way.  

The question, now, is how can we pull all the variable amounts together to give the athlete the necessary strength to hold up for all three sports, and how can you do this in open water or in a pool if open water is not available?

Most athletes look at open water as all inclusive. Swim open water, and you get the feel, and the distance, and you will make it to the end of the swim. And, that is true. However, there is more you can do with it than just those few areas.  Remember, you can build a tremendous amount of core strength when swimming and when swimming in open water.

There are several areas a coach needs to take into consideration when designing his workout for his clients. The current, water temperature, distance, depth, water conditions, wind conditions, and what marine life are in the surrounding areas, and taking the precautionary measures to coach the athletes.

Many of the form techniques and strength training techniques you use in a pool, you can use in open water. As a coach, use the current to start them off with a warm up of 75–150 yards. Swim against the current to start and they will be coming back with the current. Now you have a chance to observe their stroke and their fear level.

Use 3-5 skills and drills to help develop their form and their strength. This document is only to help show you how you can use open water for core development and strength for being stronger in the swim, the bike and run. Three drills I use, and I have been doing this for over seven years, consistently are the extended arm kick, six kick/three stroke, and the finger tip drag. There are a minimum of 30 - 40 I use, however, I mix them consistently, always with at least one of those three drills.

Now, after the warm up, and the drill session, I assign each athlete a time to swim. I start everyone who has not done open water before a maximum of 30 minutes, and I do this in waist deep water so if they tire, they can stand up to take a break.  If you have them walk during this time, they are also working their legs for the kick and run since that is what they are using while walking in the water. For muscular distance, I assign 45 minutes of consistently swimming with no stopping, and for ½ or full Ironman, I assign 60 minutes. Once a week for a minimum of three straight weeks will give the athlete enough strength for it to show in the bike and run, too. However, the athletes who come every week are the ones who are winning, moving up in their age group categories and who are going to Nationals and Worlds, without exception.

Let’s look at a couple of drills during the swim portion. As a coach, you know that just to swim will only go so far in an athlete's development. So, assign to each of them speed drills and strength conditioning during their swim. An easy form of drills for speed and force, is to go against the current, and to do the following:

3 x 3:00 @ Z4 w/ :30-1:00 rest 
3 x 2:00 @ Z4 w/ :30-1:00 rest
3 x 1:00 @ Z4 w/ :15 rest

Or, let’s have some fun, and have a drill I call “buddy tag”:

Two athletes assigned to each other, while one is doing the drill, the other is in a recovering swim mode (in open water I do not have them stopping to rest):
5 x 1:00 @ Z4 w/ 1:00 rest

Once you reach the other one, which does help with sighting, you touch their leg, and that is the signal for the athlete in recovery to start another one minute swim at zone four. And, the one who just touched the other’s leg, now recovers.

So, now that you have a couple of drills for speed and force, let’s look at one for strength, speed, and power:

Using the Tarzan method to swim with your head out of the water and when going around a buoy that is crowded. Use this method rather than the dog paddle method that newbies use (you can also go around wide swimming with your head down), here is another drill that my clients have enjoyed learning and using:

3 x 15y circles w/ Tarzan method w/ 20y freestyle swim in between

With the variables involved in open water, current is the one I use consistently to gather additional strength. Resistance has always been a strong denominator in gathering strength, so let’s use it by dividing up the open water swim workout in this manner:

The total distance can be divided into four areas or lengths. Start in the middle of the swim, and swim against the current one quarter of way (doing the drills for extra strength and workout), turn around and swim back to the starting point, then continue to swim for the third portion, and then turn around and swim back to the starting point. However, you may want to use the zone intensities to help with other developmental portions of your planned workout.  i.e., Z4, Z2, Z3, Z2   

Now, how can you use all of these in a pool? Or, other methods that can help you simulate open water conditions?

One of the tried and true methods, is to swim the length of the pool, but do not touch the wall at all, and simply turn on your own, doing a flip turn with no push off, and continue. Good method, works every time. Another one is to swim circles in your lane. By the way, the dividers have “wave eaters” on them that dictate the amount of splash or waves that are being created in the pool.  So, let’s ask and see if we cannot take those out of the pool.  

Are you good friends with the head lifeguard?  Ask him, or her, if you can take out of the pool two or more of the lane dividers and swim circles in a larger fashion. In the middle of the swimming, turn everyone around and swim the other way. Or, do figure eights in the pools to swim getting conditioned on both side of your body and developing the strength from within. If the pool has high walls, the waves will get to be pretty tough, and open water conditions will be closer to reality.  

In a pool, you can also line everyone up in two rows with kickboards in their hands and everyone starts pushing the water inwards toward each other. This will make a big amount of splash, and then have someone swim down, take off their goggles in the middle, and put them back on, all the while the boards are causing a great deal of waves. Great idea I learned from Dave Scott, six-time winner of the Hawaiian Ironman.

Go practice, in a pool that originally was only being used to swim laps.

Or, swim in open water to gain the competitive edge of core development that will take your athletes to the next level, to the next podium, to greater speeds they never knew were in them.

Bill Floyd, living in Tampa, Florida, is a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach, USA Cycling Certified Coach, TEAM in Training National Certified Coach, Mentorship Program recipient, National Age Grouper, current and two time Masters Champion – Olympic distance,