Tips & Advice

Open water training in the pool by Dan Bullock (part one)


To get into the mindset of open-water from the safety and warmth of the pool, it helps to incorporate some open-water skills into your fitness sessions.

If you’re fortunate to have the luxury of getting access to a club session and the full pool minus the lane ropes, you can recreate most scenarios likely to unfold on race day. With a few dive buoys from a Scuba shop, small races can be devised and swimming in small packs practiced. Drafting, small starts, sighting and turns around buoys are all skills we work on in the pool during the open-water pool sessions at Club La Santa. Six lanes without ropes in a 50m pool is a luxury rarely seen and is great preparation for newcomers ahead of getting into the lagoon.

Back in the real world of crowded local authority pools, however, we need to be a little more realistic and creative as to how we practice these skills and consider that the only opportunity might be a lunchtime solo session which simultaneously works on fitness. You can, however, look at this from two perspectives: open-water fitness and open-water skills. Both are required to practice an open-water race and both can be worked on in different sessions.

Open-water fitness

First up, we can look at open-water swimming from a fitness perspective by replicating how a race unfolds, focusing on all the different effort levels needed to carefully negotiate a racecourse to the best of your ability. A steady 10-minute warm-up would be ideal, including some ‘fast drills’ to align the stroke and get you ready for the harder upcoming swims. Fast drills would be considered subtle adjustments to full stroke freestyle, so you don’t need any equipment (i.e. single fist freestyle, switching every 12.5m in a 25m pool).

Prior to this, some dry land arm swings on poolside would get the blood flowing and help get you psychologically and physiologically ready to swim. This perhaps, more than the pool warm-up, would be more realistic on race day, since a structured warm-up is quite difficult in the few minutes you have between water entry and start line assembly.

Recreate the race start

A short subset with some strong efforts (8x 25 metres – 10m strong, 15m easy – then rest 15-seconds) will get the heart rate up and recreate the intensities and efforts of a race start.

Don’t rest too long ahead of the main set, so that the combined effort of the subset and main set can mimic how an open-water swim might unfold. The main set theme here is that after the subset ‘start’ we relax into a cruise swim. We then spike the heart rate with a strong leg section (imagine a multiloop course where we exit and return to the water). Here we also get to practice returning to ‘cruise’ mode after a heart rate spike and get the technique back under control before the next swim. As you work harder to control your swim technique in less than ideal circumstances, you adapt to the rigours of good technique while momentarily suffering extra fatigue.

Main set

Speedo Tip: Your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. For example, if you are 30 years old your maximum heart rate would be 190 beats per minute (220-30).

Swim 1:

  • 600m freestyle pull (no paddles just pullbuoy) at 70% maximum heart rate. Rest 20 seconds.
  • 2×1 length hard kick with a board or use breaststroke arms, or aquajog for 30 seconds if the pool is deep enough.

Swim 2:

  • 400m freestyle swim with paddles at 75% maximum heart rate. Rest 20 seconds.
  • 2×1 length hard kick with a board or use breaststroke arms, or aquajog for 30 seconds if the pool is deep enough.

Last swim

  • 600m freestyle swim at 80% maximum heart rate. Rest 20 seconds.
  • 2×1 length hard kick with a board or use breaststroke arms.
  • Finish strong to recreate ‘running/exit’ to T1
  • A suitable swim-down following the last kick section would beneficial after the hard work involved in this main set. As with any normal session, this would always be a sensible precaution to leave you at your most ready ahead of your next session, regardless of the discipline.

Fitness done? Now consider your open-water skills

In part two of my pool-based open-water feature, we look at pool sessions that help you develop the skills that prepare you for events that might unfold in your open-water race. For more advice and motivation, visit the Speedo TRIATHELITE Facebook page here.

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