Lost In Translation

By Bryan Mineo | July 12, 2016, 12:24 a.m. (ET)

open water swimming

You wouldn't train exclusively on a treadmill for a marathon, right? Similarly, you wouldn’t do all of your rides on an indoor trainer leading up to a century ride or bike race. Why then do so many triathletes swim in a pool predominantly when preparing for triathlon? Sure, swimming in a pool is swimming, but pool swimming and open water swimming couldn't be any more different. As a triathlete you are an open water swimmer by default. Because of this, it’s critical to understand the training specificity necessary to prepare you for the open water. Somehow overlooked, the obvious answer for this is to train in the open water more. In addition, learning how to practice and apply open water skills and tactics in the pool will help you acclimate to the unique demands of your racing environment. Let’s first take a closer look at some of the key differences between pool and open water swimming and what is commonly lost in translation.

The Usual Suspects

Cadence: Stroke rate, tempo, turnover, cadence, whatever you call it — the style and speed at which you stroke your arms in freestyle significantly differs from the pool to open water. Many triathletes adopt the long, gliding stroke of pool swimming and attempt to transition the same style in open water. This will prove to fall short in many ways, particularly because of the dynamic nature of open water relative to the controlled, consistent conditions of a lap pool. The longer your arm is extended, hanging out front in the open water, the greater chance for the stability and position of your arm to get disrupted by waves and chop. The open water demands a considerably higher turnover to establish and maintain momentum.

To put this into practice, consider investing into a water metronome (Finis Tempo Trainer). This may be the most valuable tool for open water training. The beep of the metronome will hold you accountable to keep a consistent, steady stroke rate like you need in open water. Practice using this in the pool for 100m, followed by 100m without it, in order to integrate the feel of this tempo without having to rely on the beep. Make this a common thread of each of your swims and you’ll quickly adapt to a higher cadence in both the pool and open water.

Navigation: With the luxury of lane lines and walls, your course is always set in the pool. As for open water, you’re left to your own devices to dictate your course and find your way. Swimmers are conditioned to rely on the confines of the pool to get from one end to the other, making an open water swim course seem daunting. To flip the script, I encourage you to consider the skills it takes to chart your own swim course and maintain spatial awareness without the lane lines. It’s common for triathletes to add up to 20 percent of their race distance due to swimming off course. A longer course means a longer swim time.

Proper sighting mechanics may prove to be your most valuable open water skill set and should be practiced in both the pool and open water. The goal is to seamlessly integrate the motion of looking forward without compromising tempo or altering your breathing pattern. To keep things consistent and rhythmic, only sight while exhaling. For a left-sided breather, as your left arm recovers forward during the inhale, extend the hand forward while extending your head forward in a low profile fashion. Only lift as much of your face out of the water necessary to get a clear picture of what’s in front of you. The lower the profile, the better. As for frequency, sight often, but dependent on conditions. For a smooth, glassy day I recommend sighting every three to four stroke cycles, while choppy conditions require sighting every two to three stroke cycles. Remember, a straight course is always faster than a squirrely course.

When you get to your next open water swim spot, spend some time on the beach observing what’s around you on land. Finding a few large landmarks such as a cellular tower or smoke stacks will serve as additional reference points to use when in the water. Relying on the buoys only can be difficult, as waves and splash will often cover your visibility of them. Having these fixed reference points will serve you well by allowing you to maintain a quick, low profile sight in the direction of the buoys without having to get a full picture of the buoy each time.

External Variables: When you show up at the pool you know exactly what to expect, from simple things like pool distance and depth to the precise water temperature. Conversely, the only constant you will find with open water is that the conditions are always dynamic. There are countless more elements to be considered, such as wind, chop, clouds or fog, direct sun, cold water, etc. Each of these presents their own challenges that pool swim training falls short on preparing you for. Beyond this, the high-powered nature of swimming in a mass of people in open water is like nothing you’d expect after swimming uniform laps in a pool every workout.

Find a local body of water near you that allows for open water training and make a concerted effort to swim there at least once a week when weather permits. The more water and weather conditions you experience firsthand, the better prepared you are for unforeseen variables on race day. Practice the swim entry and exit, getting comfortable gradually entering the water and diving under surf. To simulate this in the pool, practice jumping in the water and pushing off the floor from a dead start or dolphin diving half of the length before sprinting the second. Meet a few friends at the pool regularly to practice some of these open water techniques. An important facet to work on together is swimming shoulder to shoulder in a pack. Share a lane and swim side by side, three or four abreast, and practice sprinting to the other side and maintaining your line with the splash and turbulence from the other swimmers.

Simply, think like an open water swimmer and you’ll be a successful open water swimmer. Drop the notion that pool swimming will fully prepare you for triathlon. It’s a necessary means to log yardage and work on technique, but ultimately the open water is the only arena that will provide the functional and tactical practice needed to improve your triathlon swim leg.

The Swim Mechanic, Bryan Mineo, is an open water swim mechanics coach based in Los Angeles. His methodology is uniquely specific to the needs of triathletes. Bryan teaches an 'order of operations' by educating athletes on the cause and effect of their stroke inefficiencies. The Swim Mechanic holds clinics around the country, as well as writes monthly articles on swimming mechanics for several national publications.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.