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How to Prepare for Open-Water Swimming … in a Pool

Tri season’s looming or even under way, which means it’s time to gear up for racing.

For many triathletes, particularly less experienced ones or those without a competitive swimming background, the prospect of swimming through open water with others thrashing away close by is terrifying. But by increasing your comfort level and de-stressing the whole swim leg, you can likely realize nearly as significant gains in performance as you can by piling on the training yardage. Even if you’re limited to getting most of your training done in a pool, it’s possible to address some of the conditions you’ll encounter in the open water during a race.

First, you want to get comfortable with swimming in close proximity to other people, and even learn to put it to work for you. Then you’ll want to develop ways to take the stress and edge-of-panic feeling out of racing, mainly by being as efficient as possible and learning to relax. And finally, it’s always possible to work on your navigation skills, even if you are at the YMCA and not your favorite lake. Here are some tips for getting this done as you train in a pool.

Swimming in a Crowd

If you’re wondering, this is probably the greatest advantage that former competitive swimmers have over you if you didn’t spend your youth immersed in chlorine. While they’ve certainly logged more time in the pool than you have and are technically more proficient, what really counts at the beginning of a race is that they are veterans of overcrowded practices that bear very little resemblance to the tranquil, near-empty lanes you enjoy now.

So if you’re one of those people who sit on the pool deck and won’t get into a lane until you’re assured that you have at least half of it to yourself, get over it. The start of most triathlons is an open-water mosh pit, and the more comfortable you are with having people smack, kick, or claw you, the better off you are. So go ahead, jump in a lane that’s circling with three people already. If you’re training with a group, cram everyone into one lane and swim 25-yard sprints three abreast and with two-second intervals. Get competitive with your training group and sanction ankle-yanking when a swimmer up front gets caught by the one behind. It might be fun, assuming it doesn’t lead to a fistfight. (Note that we’re not advocating that you yank on ankles in a race, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared when someone else does it to you.)

Drafting

Drafting is a no-no in biking, but it’s perfectly legal in swimming. In fact, you know that guy who sprinted powerfully past you in the final 200 yards of the swim leg in your last race, leaving you in the dust (or, rather, bubbles)? He’d probably been drafting off of you the whole way. Drafting can save huge amounts of energy in the swim; not only are you swimming in water that’s already moving (in effect, a current), but you’re probably having to waste less energy on spotting,  assuming the person you’re tailing has decent navigation skills.

It does, however, take a little practice. With a willing partner(s), start by simply making a habit of circle-swimming in a lane, and following directly behind one another’s feet. You should be close enough that you can feel/see their bubbles, but not so close that you’re constantly tapping on their feet. Keep in mind that some swimmers don’t take kindly to being drafted in a race, and you just might get a swift kick in the face if you get too close. You can begin by starting right behind a training partner, but pushing off the wall further apart with short sprints to get into position more closely approximates what you’d be doing in a race. If you’re drafting, you’ll notice that you’re hitting your target interval times with less effort; it’s only fair, then, that you take turns taking the lead and breaking water.

Stroke efficiency

Yes, it is worth working on your stroke. If you’re thrashing through open water, without the walls in a pool that you count on for rests, even a short 750 or 1000-meter swim is going to seem daunting. A smooth, highly efficient stroke is going to be less tiring over long distances. Focus on developing a long, powerful stroke that maximizes glide — one easy way to do this is to count the number of strokes you typically take in a length, and then start whittling it down without slowing your speed. An efficient body position, with the feet, hips, and shoulders aligned, with also help you move through the water with a minimum of wasted energy. Sure, your wetsuit helps with body position, but you shouldn’t be counting on it for vital mechanics.

kim-jumping-in

Backcountry.com athlete Kim Havell getting ready to jump in.

Controlled breathing

An even, regular breathing pattern is going to be critical to comfort over long distances. And if you’re short-changing yourself on oxygen intake by not exhaling fully, you’ll tire more quickly and start getting choppy and even panicked. Make it your goal to train yourself to breathe every third stroke; this not only gives you time to fully exhale and prepare for your next breath, but it has the added benefit of making it easier for you to see what is happening on both sides.

Also, a race often involves a hard, sustained sprint to get some separation from the pack before you settle in for the long haul. The ability to settle your breathing quickly after the mad dash is critical, and it’s easy to work on in a pool. Begin as you rest on a wall after a sprint — instead of panting, take a few slow, deep breaths and focus on bringing your heart rate down as quickly as possible. When you get good at that, work on doing it on the move, by sprinting a length or a half-length and then slowing to a steady pace and getting your breathing under control as you swim.

Sighting

All the training in the world won’t do you much good if you’re swimming 20% farther than your competition because you zigzag through a course or wander way off your line. It’s possible to practice sighting in a pool so come race time, so you can swim a reasonable approximation of a straight line between buoys.

First, you want to get good at transitioning from having your face in the water to quickly locating an object on land. If heads-up freestyle is difficult, start with breaststroke or even dog-paddling and lift your head mid-lap to locate a brightly-colored object on the deck–a fin or cone, for example. Have a friend move it around so you have to locate it every time you pick up your head. Or just have your friend move around. This is useful in general, but especially so when you’re sighting on something less obvious than a giant buoy, such as an extra-tall tree or a distinctively pointy mountain.

Now you have to get used to swimming while looking; when you’re spotting your mark, arch your back slightly to elevate your head; you will need to kick harder to avoid sinking. If you’re not sure of what that should look like, visualize water polo players sprinting after a ball. Practicing with half-lengths at a time of heads-up freestyle will help with your form (be warned, it’s tiring and hard to maintain); once you’ve got it down, transition to swimming 6-8 strokes with your face in the water, then 2-3 with your face out of the water and focusing on your object.

Of course, none of these tips take the place of long, boring, exhausting hours building a base. But they can take care of some of those nagging little details that you always wish you could do better but never really have taken the time to practice. Plus they’ll spice up the ol’ back-and-forth a little and get you fired up for the races on your schedule.

Learn more:

Once you have mastered some of the biggest hurdles for less experienced swimmers (proximity to other people and sighting), you can begin to focus on ways to get a fast start to the swim leg. You can find some excellent tips for training for the start here >.

A good warm-up can also help you manage some of the stress of the swim start; tips and techniques can be found here >.

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