Translating Pool Swimming to Open Water Swimming

By Amy Javens | June 26, 2018, 1:41 p.m. (ET)
We swim countless miles staring at a black line, going back-and forth with lane lines on either side of us. And then we go and race, and gone is the black line. Gone are the walls, every 25 seconds. Gone are the lane lines that keep us on path. Gone is crystal clear water. Oh, and now there are what feels like a few thousand people surrounding us, trying to occupy the same space! YIKES!
 
The translation of pool swim fitness to open water swim fitness, is very transferrable. But, just as fitness from cycling is very transferrable to mountain biking, things change pretty quickly when you start throwing obstacles in the way. Once things get technical, speed is no longer purely a function of fitness and form. Open water swimming is the mountain biking of pool swimming. There are many variables that can get in the way of having a clear transferable pool-to-open water swim. 

Much anxiety with open water swimming comes from not being mentally or physically prepared for it. There are many things we can do in the pool, before heading out into open water, to help us tackle some mental and physical limiters. Here are some ways to get over said obstacles.

Go to Masters Swimming 

Too many triathletes swim alone and get used to having no other swimmers around while swimming. This does not translate well to a mass swim start that many experience at triathlons. There will be bodies, people will touch you and you will get kicked — get used to it! How? Find a Masters swimming program and get used to chasing feet, touching feet, seeing bubbles and swimming in a draft line. Learn to enjoy the water with others around you. Begin to associate swimming as a social and fun event and not as solitary confinement. Learn to like social swimming and the verbal and non-verbal communication that comes with that, and feed off the positive energy of others. 

No Lane Lines

Practice in pools with no lane lines. The water will be a bit choppier and simulate open water better. It will also allow you to develop better spatial perception and body awareness in the water. 

One drill is to swim the perimeter of the pool. Swim with variations of streamline kicking on the short ends and freestyle the long ends of the pool. You can also freestyle the whole perimeter and practice corkscrew turns at the corners of the pool to simulate buoy turns. The hand closest to the direction you want to go initiates by placing it in the water. The opposite then swings over the body as you roll over onto your back. Your initial hand then does a backstroke pull as you continue to roll over back onto your stomach, then resume freestyle swimming. Also, try swimming diagonals and triangles through the open pool. The more variation, the better mentally you will be prepared to swim in open non-structured swimming environments.  

Balance, and a Rhythmic Catch and Pull

Open water swimming requires effective balance in a more hostile swim environment than a pool. It also requires a rhythmic and solid catch and pull portion of the swim stroke. With currents and chop, it is important to have a strong and steady catch and pull to get you through the water quickly. Improve this stroke phase by getting a video analysis — it can identify parts of your stroke that can be improved. Are you offbalance? Do you drive rotation through the hips? Being offbalance and limited rotation can cause one to cross centerline, pull to the side and throw off other phases of the stroke. Exiting the pull is just as important as entering with the catch. All of these small flaws may handicap a swimmer in the open water. Do lots of balance drill work to improve balance, and use a metronome to become more rhythmic and help increase turnover. You can also practice in Roka SIM Shorts or a wetsuit to simulate wetsuit balance before race day comes. Use pull buoy and appropriate paddles to strengthen your catch and pull. Ankle band work can be used for athletes who can hold proper form while using the bands. This will help improve balance, the catch, pull and turnover.

Breathing drills

Open water swimming is messy and imperfect. We may gulp water, become a bit “shell shocked” with cold water, lose our breath or goggles or run into debris or people. All of these things require us to regain our composure and regulate breathing. Doing sets of breathing every three, five, seven and nine strokes will help do a few things — increase our lung capacity to take on these challenges, teach us to relax more and give us confidence that if we have to take an extra few strokes per breath during an open water swim, that we can definitely do it.

How about “no breaths”? Become comfortable with regulating your anxiety while swimming 25 yards with no breath. Start with fins, and possibly decrease from three, to two to one breath. Then advance to no fins, no breath and eventually underwater swimming. Make yourself comfortable with being uncomfortable. An IRONMAN swim start is a very uncomfortable place for many of us — get used to it.

Sighting

Open water requires us to lift our head to sight while maintaining balance and tautness while we swim. Triathletes should incorporate sighting in their workouts. If it doesn’t coincide with a main swim set, then sight one or two times every 25 yards in the warm-up or cooldown sets. Practice timing the sight and maintaining true form.

Tarzan Drill and Treading Water

A tarzan drill is a drill that requires you to keep your head out of the water while free stroking. It also helps improve our catch. In open water, we may find ourselves in situations where we have to pause from regular swimming and lift our heads, while moving forward — such as finding “hard to sight” buoys, navigating congestion with other swimmers and dealing with cold water. Practice it often, and when you take your swimming to open water, use it frequently so it feels second nature. Also, don’t forget to tread water occasionally, to get used to mass swim starts. 

Swim Suicide

 A swim suicide is just like what players do on a basketball court, running back and forth between the various lines. The same is true with swim suicides, except the coach places cones on the side of the pool and the swimmer must flip turn at those cones, mid-pool with no wall flip push off assistance, and do a swim suicide turn at every cone. This is repeated until all the cones are flipped at. What is the purpose, besides having fun?  It teaches us to be messy, and to restart swimming with no wall assisted pushoffs and to use the upper body to get moving again with lots of chop and commotion around us.  

Group Start Simulations

Lump a group of swimmers in one lane. Four to eight.  Can be various abilities.  Use a pull buoy or ankle bands, and practice race starts in the mass group by 12-25 yards and a rest. Prepare to be poked, kicked, touched, and kicked.  This drill gets us ready for aggressiveness that may greet us at the swim start.

Drafting

It’s faster drafting off others in open water, rather than swimming alone — as long as the lead swimmer is efficient at sighting. Get used to drafting off of feet and bubbles during pool practices. Do sets with similar paced athletes where you send off at about a second apart. Take turns on who leads, and stay on the feet. Get used to others touching your feet. Again, make swimming social! 

Pace Variations / Surging

In open water swimming we find ourselves in situations where we need to slow down and speed up. For example, if we lose the feet of a drafted swimmer, perhaps because of a poor sighting error, we will need to surge (speed up) to catch their draft again. In the pool, practice surging and slowing down within a set. Use RPE (rate of perceived exertion) to do it —  repeat 200s, and within the 200 do 50 yards at 80 perfect, 50 yards at 85 percent, 50 at 95 percent, then the last 50 at 60 percent. Work up to doing this with others swimmers in front and behind you.

Swim Start Simulations and  “Go Out Hards”

The starting line of an open water swim in a triathlon is usually very unpredictable as well as highly anxious. How often do we arrive at the swim start, race morning, to find out that there will be no warm-up? If we can’t warm up for an open water swim, there are still things we can do things to prep the body. Practice this in the pool, first. Before going out hard, do some dynamics or swim cord exercises to prep the body, just like we would encourage you to do race morning. Then jump in the pool and enter immediately into the main set that simulates an open water swim start of “go out hard”. This could be something like 50 or 100 yards hards, and settle right into a steady 100 or 200 yards. The key thing here is to produce a bit of effort to allow you to work through a little bit of discomfort and anxiety, then settle into a nice steady pace — just like what many athletes face the morning of race day.

Pool swimming can be translated into open water swimming a bit better if we try to simulate the conditions triathletes will face on race day. This cannot replace true preparation for open water swimming, but by using some of these suggestions, it will help make a better transition from pool to open water swimming.


Amy Javens is a USAT Level 1 and QT2 Systems Level 2 Certified Coach and lives in Hermitage, PA. She has been in the sport for 16 years and raced professionally for a number of years. Amy was the champion at 2015 Beach2Battleship 140.6 and 2017 IRONMAN Los Cabos. Follow her on Instagram, here