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Coaches Blog

Open Water Swimming – All the Things!

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

by Kelly Ryan

With COVID-19 having shut down most of the world's pools, most of us are kicking off the open water swim season with a vengeance (and earlier than usual, for some). As we all start to get back in the water, here are some tips to help you regain your swim fitness, and improve your form, which means swimming faster, with less effort!

Junk meters are just that – junk.

Most of us are used to having structured swim workouts designed for pools. Unfortunately, what I see a lot of as a coach is that many athletes jump into open water swim sessions, with no other goal than to log as meters as possible

Slogging out endless meters when you’ve been out of the water for some time really just winds up creating or reinforcing poor muscle memory. There is, of course, a time and a place for long endurance workouts, but if you had taken two months off from running, you wouldn’t just go out and run a 13.1 or a full marathon with no training, right? While doable for many triathletes, the “go big or go home” strategy is probably not the most effective one.

Great form, which reduces the exponential drag forces that the water places on a swimmer’s body, is of critical importance when it comes to the swim. Thus, a smart training plan would begin with sessions that incorporate short intervals with frequent, short rest periods, allowing you to maintain great form for each of those meters. Also, drills can be incorporated in the open water, just like in the pool, and can help reinforce good muscle memory as you regain your swim fitness (more on drills below!). It’s best to incorporate drills and intervals that reinforce good form while building your fitness back up. Over time, it will become easier and easier to maintain good swim form until you're able to retain it for 1.5km, 2km, 4km, etc.

Doing intervals in open water requires a little bit of creativity:

Focus on the number of strokes instead of distance: For example, you could do 20 strokes of one arm drill on the left, then 20 strokes on the right. Or, do 30 strokes of high power/intensity, 30 strokes easy to recover, then repeat.

Use landmarks: Look for landmarks on the shoreline and do intervals between them, similar to a fartlek run workout (fast between light posts 1 and 2, easy from 2 to 3, fast from 3 to 4, and so on). You can do swim drills this same way, or choose one aspect of your stroke to focus on from landmark to landmark.

Set your watch: You can also set your GPS watch to alert you with a sound and/or vibration at either a specific time or distance interval. I like to set up the entire workout based on that same time or distance interval so that I don't have to mess with the settings on my watch once I've started the workout.

Do The Same Drills You do in The Pool: I like to structure open water swim workouts similar to how I structure pool workouts. Start with a 5-10min warmup, then move into drills that you and your coach have already identified to address any areas for improvement, before moving into designated time or distance based intervals.

When it comes to open water swimming, a high elbow entry, and power at the front of your stroke are critical to moving through any chop or movement in the water efficiently. Drills such as front scull, super-man kicking, doggy paddle drill, and tap drill are great for getting the high elbow entry and catch and improving your balance in the water, both of which will further improve your swim times and how much the swim will zap from your energy stores for the rest of your race.

Practice Your Open Water Specific Techniques.

Sighting: Pick a landmark above the horizon, behind where you want to go. Practice swimming towards that landmark and sighting every 2 strokes, then 4, then 6, etc…

Two great drills for sighting are the caveman drill, where you swim with your head out of the water, focusing on keeping your legs up towards the surface of the water and the “alligator eyes” drill. Almost identical to the caveman drill, in alligator eyes, only your eyes are out of the water, and you're maintaining sight on your landmark. To breathe, make sure you turn to the side, instead of lifting your head high enough to catch a breath. This prevents your legs from dropping and allows you to remain as streamlined as possible.

Turns: If you have the option to practice turns around a buoy or other object (swim buddy!?), practice swimming into the turn from a little outside and coming out just a hair wide. This allows you to maintain momentum through the turn, instead of coming to a complete stop while trying to make a 180. (Cyclists and runners call this “riding/running on the tangent”.)

Starts: Practice beach starts by running into the water and diving just as the water gets to a little above your knees. For in-water starts, practice treading water at the start line, with your hips and feet at the surface, then breaking into a strong 10-20 strokes to simulate the start.

Water Exits: Swimming is always faster than wading through waist-deep water so swim exits are an easy place to save a few seconds during a race. ALWAYS keep swimming until your hand touches the bottom, before standing up to start running into transition.

A Few Important Notes on Open Water Swim Safety:

  • Always let someone know where you're going and when you intend to be back (then check back in with them when you return). Better yet, swim with a buddy.

  • Always check the weather… Thunderstorms in the area are an absolute no-go for open water swimming.

  • Always wear a bright swim cap, even if you hate wearing swim caps.

  • An open water swim buoy is a crucial safety device. They are bigger than your bright swim cap and are, therefore more visible to maritime traffic, humans on shore, and any rescue personnel, should things go awry. Added bonus: many also have a dry bag feature, so you can keep your keys and cell phone in a safe place instead of leaving them onshore! (However, I do not recommend taking things out of the dry bag while you're out on the water. It's a recipe for drowning your phone or sending valuable items to Davey Jones' locker.)

  • Check websites for marine life such as jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, and other critters that could make your swim unpleasant or unsafe.

  • Talk to the lifeguards on duty before diving in to make sure you know of any rip currents or water hazards that you should be aware of.

A Couple Notes on Open Water Swim Anxiety:

Believe it or not, open water swim anxiety is something that almost every triathlete faces at some point. Even some pros are open about their own occasional struggle with open water swimming anxiety. Whether it's caused by freezing water that takes your breath away, or organic feelings of panic when away from the shore, it's an important issue to address safely.

If this is something you struggle with, or if you're new to open water swimming, only push your comfort zone in small increments during each session. For example, keep your session limited to swimming along the shoreline, where you can easily get to where you can touch if necessary. You can also practice just going straight out from shore for 25-50m, then coming back in. These tactics will allow you to gradually and safely build your confidence.

When we get anxious, we usually start taking shallow breaths that only fill the top portion of our chests. If you do ever feel a wave of panic while in the water, the best thing to do is to focus on slowing down your breath, which will, in turn, bring your heart rate down and reduce the physiological feelings of panic. Work on drawing the breath down to your diaphragm, pausing briefly, then exhaling fully, before smoothly and calmly taking your next inhale. This should be an assertive exhale through the nose, not much through the mouth.

With all these techniques, drills, and methods, I hope you're able to find joy again in the water and continue to improve your skills, even while COVID-19 shakes up our plans.

Happy training!


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