Practicing Your Open Water Skills in the Pool

By Ken Johnson | May 14, 2018, 6:30 p.m. (ET)


The tri season is ramping up, and soon some of us will be able to get into open water to practice. But if you don’t have access to safe open water swimming, or the weather isn’t cooperating, did you know you can practice some of your open water skills in a swimming pool? Below are some exercises I’ve had my athletes work on in a pool.

But before we begin, a word about pool etiquette. Most of these exercises are going to take place in a swim lane (if public/gym pool) and involve more than one person. Always use an empty lane that no one is swimming in, and ideally a lane that is not dedicated to lap swimming. You might also want to check with the lifeguards and let them know what you’ll be doing.

Which side do you swim to?

None of us swim straight. If we dropped you in the middle of the ocean with no land visible, you’d swim in a big circle. One side of your body is stronger than the other, meaning it will have a stronger kick. If your right side is stronger, a right foot kick will tend to send you to the left.

Do this exercise in an interior lane with lane lines on both sides (not a wall). Close your eyes and start swimming. Sooner or later your arm will hit one of the lane lines. Open your eyes and see which side you veer to. You may want to station someone at the end of the lane to warn against hitting the wall, just in case you do swim straight for that distance.

Practice swimming straight

Now that you know which side you go to, do the same exercise but concentrate on kicking more forcefully on your non-strong side. Did you make it further before hitting a lane line? Are you still going to the same side or did you overcompensate and go to the other side? Practice varying the force of the non-strong leg until you can go a good distance. Remember now, eyes closed — no looking at black line on the bottom of the pool. There isn’t a black line in open water!

Water standing start

This exercise requires a group of people, and a lap lane where you can stand up. You’re going to mimic standing in the water and starting from there. The group should seed themselves and tighten up as much as possible. At the go, everyone takes off swimming. You’ll get jostled and probably encounter someone’s arm or leg, which is exactly what happens at the start of the triathlon.

Keep swimming down the lane until the group stretches out with everyone at their normal speed. Did you seed yourself properly? If you were at the front and were constantly passed (or swum over), you need to seed yourself more toward the back of the group. How did you feel if you seeded yourself in the middle of the group? Think you’d get a better start if you were off to one side?

Deep start

This is basically the same exercise as above, except you’re going to use a lane where you cannot touch bottom. Some races, such as the Chicago Triathlon, have you jump in and tread water until the start. Once again, everyone should seed themselves, and bunch up. But, wait 3 to 4 minutes before you start, with everyone treading water. This mirrors the actual race, where you’ll jump in after the prior wave starts and must wait a few minutes until your wave goes off.

Beach start

The last exercise requires a zero-depth pool, where the edge gradually slopes from the deck into the water, becoming deeper with each step, just like a natural beach. This one requires caution. Before you “dive” in, you need to make sure the water is deep enough and you need to do a shallow dive. In shallow water you don’t want to hit bottom. Also, the zero-depth edge is usually where young children enter the water, so make sure the coast is clear before beginning.

Start on the deck (again seeding yourself) and on go run into the water as far as you can. Remember to keep knees high. Once the water is deep enough, do a shallow dive and start swimming. Or you can practice dolphining, where you plant your feet on the bottom and push off, launching another shallow dive. You can continue dolphining until the water gets too deep to plant your feet.

So, don’t just swim laps if open water is not available to you. Practice these open water skills and simulations during some of your swim time.

Ken Johnson, M.S.,MBA, has been a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach since 2003 and for 10 years coached at the largest municipal recreation facility in the country. His website is

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.