How to get the most from open water swimming

As the seasons begin to change, we start to see open water venues open once again and this usually indicates to triathletes that race season is now just around the corner and they begin to ditch the busy pool and flock to the open water in their droves! In this blog we look at how important open water swimming practice is and how to incorporate open water swimming into your schedule most effectively.

Open water swimming is great for the soul!

Open water swimming is great for the soul!

As athletes try to familiarise themselves with swimming without lanes, warmth and chlorine before their first race, we see a general shift from athletes training in the pool to enjoying the open water. As a coach, we sometimes see this shift towards open water as a poor substitute for hard work in the pool. Therefore, we need to re-address the reason for going to the open water and where it fits into training. In reality, most athletes prefer open water swimming to the pool and understandably too. With nice weather, a fresh water dip or a gentle swell is so much better for the soul than the chlorinated melee some of us face at our local swimming pool.

However, a brief 20 mins "oh-my-gosh-it-is-cold" is very different to a one hour threshold or speed based session in the pool and that’s where as coaches we have to start questioning the purpose of such an open water session.

Firstly, we understand that three pillars of fitness are: endurance, skill and strength. Put in real terms; without the skill, you can't do the sport, but without the endurance to repeat the skill, you wont have fitness and without strength you can't hold form, but you also need endurance to build the strength... etc etc

Getting confusing? think about the three pillars; endurance, skill and strength as being totally dependent on one another to produce fitness. To add a visual element to this we sometimes think of these three elements as the triangle of fitness.

So, where does open water fit in with regards to the triangle of fitness?

Open water sessions usually take place in far better venues than our local pool

Open water sessions usually take place in far better venues than our local pool

Where does this leave open water swimming sessions?

Firstly, can an open water swimming session be beneficial in achieving any of the above components of fitness?

In reality, yes, it can help build endurance and it can help hone in skills. It can also improve strength if working in choppy or tricky conditions. However, what we generally find is that the real reason athletes prefer the open water is that it is far easier to hide in the open water. You can avoid quick turnaround times; you have no feedback (like a tempo trainer) to keep you on pace or give you feedback on how you are swimming; and, it is easy to skip one rep early.

"One more 800m loop, or shall we head in?"

In the same way athletes tend to avoid much of the cool down in the pool, athletes in the open water sometimes struggle with the motivation for that last lap! In which case, what could have been an excellent endurance swim of 3x800m laps non-stop may become a bit less than that, or perhaps the cold limits the quality movement you have honed in over the winter block meaning you end up clawing your way round the loop and losing the feel of the water.

Other factors to consider are; unless you can get in the water with your normal training buddies, how many of the key skills are you actually working? Are you actually working on drafting? What about properly sighting? Or are you following the group round? How about aggressively turning round the buoy? Are you getting used to swimming amongst people, being swum over, or practicing starts as a group?

We have found that a lot of the skills needed for open water swimming can usually be most easily practiced when you remove the space and do things in a crowded environment in a pool!

As a general rule of thumb, open water swims should be all about getting used to the environment. Are you comfortable in your wetsuit, what about the water temperature – if you are racing early season then a couple of swims will help you acclimatise to the cold water and avoid the chance of cold water shock in a race environment. If you’re racing in the sea, can you do a beach start? What about swimming through breakers, or body surfing waves in?

These are all very useful open water skills that you should be practicing when you get the chance. However, unless you are adding value to your swimming week by swimming in the open water with clear purpose, all too often, the open water swim becomes added junk miles to a triathletes already busy schedule. You only have a finite amount of time, so use it wisely!

Does this mean triathletes should stick to the pool only?

At the end of the day, above all else, consistency trumps everything from a training perspective. Without consistency, you are unlikely to improve. Therefore, if it is a choice between no swim or an open water swim. Then the open water wins. If it is an extra swim, for example, you can do a third swim every week by heading down to the lake, thereby increasing your swimming frequency and thus volume, it will add to your swimming. Sometimes the change of location is also helpful to improve motivation.

You also need time to acclimatise. Reminding yourself about your wetsuit fit, swimming in colder water and checking everything works properly will all help you prepare for your upcoming races and it will only get warmer from spring through to the summer, so the first one will always be the worst! It is most definitely worth making the time to fit in a few sessions in the open water before your first race of the season.

In summary, if an open water swim is not adding to one of the 3 corners of the fitness triangle then you do need to seriously consider why you are including it as part of your training schedule. There may be a better way of getting the necessary gains out of the open water without sacrificing all the swimming fitness you have gained over the winter months.