Open-water Swimming Competition Training Tips

Professional triathlete Sara McLarty suggests eight swimming workouts, which can be practiced in a pool while preparing for an open-water race.

I live in Lake County, Florida. As you might have guessed, I have plenty of possibilities to practice in open water. There is a lake in my front yard, another one in my backyard, and one on each side of my house. I can invite a friend, bring a kayak and each weekend pick a different lake to train.

However not everyone is as lucky as I am. Low temperatures in winter, frozen water, pollution, unsafe conditions, heavy motorboat traffic, lack of open-water resources in the neighborhood – all these deprive you of the opportunity to train in natural surroundings. In order to get well-prepared for race season but along with this avoid risk of unsuitable conditions, you can try some of these training tips during your next swim in the pool.

Flip at the T: During normal swimming workout in the pool, each wall is a chance to take a rest, relax and recover before the next lap. The only way for you to prepare for a long swim (500 – 1000m) is swimming without touching the wall. Instead of turning at the wall and pushing off with your legs, flip at the T at the end of the lane marker or 1.5 meters before the wall. You will lose momentum and will have to use your arms and legs to accelerate again. Caution: This can be stressful on your shoulders, so be sure you also use your legs after the flip. As with all workouts, don’t push yourself too hard.

Follow your coach: During my short experience as a swim coach, I discovered why coaches always move along the pool deck. They usually do it to communicate with swimmers in lanes, to keep warm or for any other reasons. You can use this random movement to your advantage: just imagine your coach is a big orange buoy. Sight your coach during workout. Hold your head forward, scan the horizon for the coach / buoy, turn your head to the side for a breath and continue swimming. Do this no more than five times per lap.

Water polo: It seems that water polo players never get tired of keeping their heads out of the water – it’s a necessary practice for the sport. So, let’s steal this page out of their book and train holding our heads out of the water. In a real open-water situation there may occur many circumstances in which you could use this practice (cold water, feet in your face, hardly noticeable buoys etc.). Swim the entire lap with you head up (e. g. 6x25m). Don’t turn your head to the side to breathe, that’s cheating! This is a great way to train your neck and make you aware of how your body sinks when your head is up. In order to make this workout more exhausting, you can use some paddles. But this will put a lot of stress on the rotator cuff, so take care.

Dolphin dive: Although I have at hand more lakes than idea about how to take advantage of them, I also train at pool. The pool that I use has a gradually sloping bottom, just like on the beach. It gives me the opportunity to practice the “dolphin dive”. For this you can also use the shallow end or the kiddy pool. Caution: Make sure you know the depth of the whole area you are using, and always start diving from your hands, so as to not injure your head and neck.

Hypoxic breathing: Open water can seem less intimidating if you can hold your breath for a long period or if you are comfortable with not taking in air every three strokes. Situations like cold-water shock, chop and splash are very common during a swimming event. Training your hypoxic breathing or gradually increasing the number of strokes you take between breaths is a great way to prepare for such situations. For example, when you do 5x100m, you breathe every three strokes on the first lap, every five strokes on the second, every seven strokes on the third, and every nine strokes (or not breathe at all) on the last lap.

Turn in the middle: In a triathlon or open-water swim competition, participants are rarely supposed to take a 180-degree turn on the course, as there’s no reason in sending competitors towards each other. Thus, 90-degree turns are common practice. Imagine there is a buoy in the middle of your lane, swim towards it and turn around it. As a buoy, you can use a teammate, an inflated buoy, a mark on the bottom of the pool, or just your imagination. The point is to practice your turns! You can train on 180-degree turns as well – in this case, there’s no harm in overtraining!

Three mates: Most swimming lanes are about two or three meters wide. This is just enough space to train with a couple of teammates side by side. Swim 6x25m fast, alternating leading positions. The middle slot is the coolest, so it’s worth fighting for.

Drafting: Here is where the fun begins! Swim the long distances behind swimmers of similar abilities in the same lanes. Each swimmer should start one second after the previous one, and try to swim in a line. Don’t forget to alternate leading positions after each interval.

You can make a regular practice of these fun workouts. After a while, training in the pool can turn into a routine (especially after 20 years), and any deviations in workouts are welcome. My advice will not only give you a boost but will also help you prepare for the first, second or 100th triathlon race. Take a creative approach to training and be inventive. These are just some guidelines to get inspired from. You can combine workouts (like “Water polo” and “Three mates”) to make your next training more efficient. Remember that the most important thing you get from training is the feeling of self-confidence at the start of the race.

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