Translating Pool Fitness Into Open Water Success

We swim countless miles, staring at a black line, going back-and forth, 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.  Let’s discuss ways to get over the obstacles of transferring pool swimming to effective open water swimming.
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.  You will get kicked.  Get used to it!  How?  Find a Master’s Swimming program.  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 others’ positive energy.  Or, learn to block any negative energy, because, let’s face it, there is always going to be that ONE triathlete, who feels he/she needs to throw punches and push their way through a race swim.  Learn to not be reactive to “THAT” athlete and NOT to become “THAT” athlete.

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.  Or 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. 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
Improve it!  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 what parts of your stroke that can be improved.  Are you off balance? Do you drive rotation through the hips?  Being off balance 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. Use a metronome to become more rhythmic and help increase turnover.  Then 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.  Swim limited athletes should use smaller paddles, so to not reduce turnover, that may happen with larger paddles.  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 will require us to regain our composure and regulate breathing.  It only makes sense to practice “imperfect breathing” in the water.  Doing sets of breathing every 3, 5, 7 and 9 strokes will help do a few things; increase our lung capacity to take on these challenges, teach us to relax better, 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 just that.  Example would be repeat 200 pulls, with every 50 changing the breathing pattern.  The first 50 breathe 3, second 50 breathe 5, next 7 and next 9 strokes.  How about “no breaths”?  Become comfortable with regulating your anxiety while swimming 25 yards with no breath.  Start with fins, and possibly 3,2,1 breaths.  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.

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 do 1 to 2 sighting every 25 yards in the warm up or cool down sets.  Practice the timing of the sight and maintaining true form.

Tarzan Drill and Treading Water
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, congestion with other swimmers, and 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 in water swim starts. 

Swim Suicide
 A swim suicide is just like what players do on a basketball court, running back and forth between the various court lines.  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 cones are flipped at.  Comically it can resemble a bit of a reenactment of the childhood game, ”shark and minnows” with swimming in all different directions as other swimmers.  What is the purpose, besides have fun?  It teaches us to be “messy”, and to restart swimming with no wall assisted push offs and to use the upper body to “get moving” again with lots of chop and commotionv around us.  Just like situations we will find ourselves in open water swimming, with hopefully, minus the sharks.

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.

We will be faster drafting off of others in open water, 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 1 sec apart.  Take turns on who leads.  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, we lose the feet of a drafted swimmer, perhaps because of a poor sighting error, and we 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.  For example, repeat 200s, within the 200 do 50 yards at 80%, 50 at 85%, 50 at 95 %, then the last 50 at 60%.  Repeat.  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 “in water warm up”?   Many times!  But, often, we “warm up” for our pool swim practice.  Doesn’t make sense, does it?  If we can’t warm up for an open water swim, there are still things we can do things to prep the body.  Dynamic exercises like swim cords will to the trick.  So before this set of “going out hard”, do some dynamics or swim cords 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 HARD, 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 settling 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; we need to get out in the open water to do just this.  But by using some of the suggestions, as earlier mentioned, it will help make a better transition from pool to open water swimming.

~Amy Javens - QT2 and ORR coach

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