Thoughts on More Effective Open Water Training

Lately I've been thinking about how to make open water training swims more effective, and interesting, than just swimming for a set distance or time.

Too often, when I am swimming open water, I get in, "swim until I'm done", and get out.  There's nothing really wrong with training like this, unless that's all you do.  Here are some reasons for training this way:

  • It Can Build Confidence - This is common for a lot of triathletes I meet who aren't strong swimmers.  Being able to swim their race distance in one shot, gives them confidence that they will be able to finish the swim in their race.  When training for longer swims, getting a good, long training swim in has the same effect.  It can build your confidence that you will make your target distance.  For marathon swim training, it also gives you a chance to experiment with feeds and swimming with a paddler, and gives you an idea of when you may "hit the wall" so that you can prepare for it.
  • It's Easy - It doesn't take a lot of thought ahead of time.  Especially for those who are newer to swimming and aren't familiar with the terminology and methodology of pool swimming workouts, it's easy to just get in swim, and get out.
The downside to training this way all the time is that it doesn't do much to make you any faster.  If you are looking to increase your speed, you need to put a little more thought and effort into planning your training swims and incorporate intervals and open water skills.  Over time, training this way will help increase your speed and will give you an edge over those who just "swim until they're done".
  • Intervals - Interval training is common in pool swimming workouts, but not so much in open water training swims.  It's the same idea for open water, just not as controlled as swimming in a pool.  If you are swimming laps or loops, try to swim each one at a consistent pace, taking a short rest in between loops.  You can also try to make each loop faster than the one before (negative splitting), taking a short rest in between repeats.  If you are swimming along a line of buoys, try alternating swimming hard and easy at each buoy.  If there are no buoys, you can swim 100 strokes (or however many) hard and then 100 strokes easy.  If you are swimming a line of buoys, you can do ladder swim, alternating swimming hard and easy.  This will pay off when it comes time for your race and you need to pass someone, or lose someone.
  • Open Water Skills - There are several skills specific to open water that can help you be more efficient and make you faster.  Among those skills are sighting, drafting, turns, starts and finishes, and learning how to adapt your stroke to changing conditions.  Practicing these skills will give you an edge over those who don't.
Working some of these things into your open water training swims will help prepare you more than just swimming a set distance or time.  Here is an example of a more effective open water training workout:

Warm-up - Easy 10 minute swim

5 Starts - Either from the shore, running and diving into the water and sprinting for 20 strokes, swim easy back to the starting position and repeat.

5 Finishes - Practice your finishing speed.  Swim hard 100 yards into shore and get used to changing from a horizontal position to a vertical position.  Once you clear the water, run another 100 yards or so.  Swim easy back to where you started and repeat.

*Instead of splitting up the starts and finishes you could also do "in-and-outs". Begin with a start from the shore and swim hard for 20 strokes, swim another 20 strokes easy, turn around and swim another 20 strokes easy back towards shore, swim 20 strokes hard (closing speed) and finish out of the water with a short jog up the shore.  Repeat.

Swim 1 Mile - But break it up into four 1/4 mile loops or sections.  Try to make each repeat at a consistent pace. Take a short rest in between each repeat.  Alternately, try to negative split each 1/4 swim.  You can change the distances to fit your needs and your venue.  If you are swimming with friends, you can also alternate who leads each repeat and take turns drafting.

10 Turns - Practice turning around a buoy, 5 times to the left and 5 times to the right.

Cool-Down - Easy 10 minute swim

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