Making the Most of Open Water

The Tri2O Swim CentreOpen water swim season has begun. I’m back on the dock at the Tri2O Swim Centre where the water is already a tropical fifteen degrees and plenty of swimmers have taken a dip. I prefer it a few degrees warmer; all I’ve done is watch. As lifeguard I enjoy the sunny spring mornings and observing a broad range of swim and open water techniques.

Most triathletes enjoy the open water, swimming itself can be another matter. At best they’re frustrated – the heavy technical emphasis and the challenge of improving saps motivation. At worst they dislike it, swimming is reluctantly done, enough to ensure they can get to their bike. A triathlete who enjoys swimming and takes every opportunity to develop fitness and skills seems a rare breed.

The lake draws in even the most hesitant swimmers. Fresh water and the sun on your back is more appealing than a claustrophobic pool and the smell of chlorine. No turns and no lap clock to worry about – just swim. Anything that encourages more swimming is a positive. Nobody becomes a better swimmer on dry land.

Pleasant as the environment is lakes are not optimal training venues. Perfect for practicing open water skills, but not for practicing swimming skills. It’s important to ensure your confident and competent in open water, but equally time should be spent in the pool developing swim fitness and technique. Ultimately this is the work that makes you a faster swimmer.

Standing on the dock I see triathletes dive in and sprint to the first buoy; the pace drops as they tire and soon settles to a steady plod. After a few laps, probably enough to cover their goal distance, they get out. Other than the initial adrenaline fuelled sprint it’s far lighter than any session I’d schedule in the pool. A missed opportunity to develop open water technique or fitness.

The first few swims are likely to be slower and more cautious. When I first return to the lake I find I subconsciously tense lifting my head in the water. Body position isn’t right and swimming feels like hard work; it takes a couple of sessions for me to relax. There’s nothing wrong with taking it easy for the first few visits, as the lifeguard I definitely prefer that. Once you’re comfortable in the water its time to focus on training.

Swim fitness and technique are critical to performance in open water, but there are specific skills to train. Well executed starts, turns, sighting and drafting can make big differences. Time spent developing these should be a goal for every open water session – they’re important details. Good sighting saves swimming hundreds of metres extra; good drafting saves significant effort. Efficiency is always the goal: start to finish as quickly as possible without wasting energy.

Open water lacks the pool’s precision, but that’s no reason to swim at a single pace. Intensity can be varied as can duration of efforts, fundamentally that’s how we train in the pool. Swim sessions can be built around landmarks or counting strokes – single lap time trials; quarter lap hard, quarter lap steady; all out for a hundred strokes, fifty easy. There are plenty of ways you can work harder in the water. As the season progresses I spend increasing amounts of open water time around Critical Swim Speed; I don’t know my exact pace, but I know the feel.

Do not abandon the pool, however much you dislike it. A lake may be race specific, but a pool is swim specific. The pool is the place to work on swim technique, pacing and really focus on building swim fitness. Open water is a supplement to this training, a chance to practice race technique and skills. Don’t view the buoyancy of a wetsuit and energy savings of a draft as reasons not to improve your swimming.

I’m enjoying being back on the dock, meeting local triathletes and watching them swim. I’ll brave the cold and join in soon. Drafting is the skill I need to work on, when the field spreads following feet is harder than it looks. Something to focus on in the lake whilst I work on my swim performance in the pool. Together I’ll improve as a swimmer and a triathlete.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.