Master Open Water Swimming: Essential Skills, Drills, and Workouts for Race Day Success
When given the opportunity to swim in open water, your aim is to apply your pool skills and fitness to the race setting. Training at a local pond or beach can improve your race performance, boost your self-assurance, and break the monotony of swimming endless laps in the pool.
In the untamed environment of open water, always spend a few minutes getting to know your surroundings: Are there any obstacles when entering or leaving the water? How's the water temperature? Do you need a wetsuit? What about currents, riptides, waves, and chop? Once you're in, practice safety skills like treading water, breathing when cold water takes your breath away, floating on your back, and using an alternate resting stroke. If you're new to open water swimming, using a swim buoy or bubble can help you relax.
Don't forget to warm up! Think about what you'd do in the pool. Easy swimming, light drills, and alternate strokes are all solid options. Find a comfortable breathing rhythm as it will both calm you down and prepare you for the workout. Spend a few minutes doing drills to focus on good stroke mechanics right from the beginning. A pre-race warm-up isn't always feasible or optimal, so plan for this by doing a dry land warm-up or the shortest, most efficient warm-up possible.
Sighting and Navigation
Without a black line, walls, or lane lines to guide you, sighting and navigation become a new challenge. First, check your goggles: Do they leak, fog up, or do you fuss with them a lot? Do you need prescription goggles? Find a pair of goggles that fit well, stay in place, and are as fog-free as possible (using anti-fog solution or mild soap can help). Always carry a spare pair. These simple actions will reduce the disorientation that often occurs in open water. Good navigation begins with clear vision.
Sighting and Delayed Processing
Sighting can be a matter of trust. You might not always get a clear view of your target buoy. There can be a delay between what your eyes see and when your brain processes it. Catch a glimpse, keep moving, and wait for your brain to inform you of what your eyes just saw.
Swimming in a straight line can be tough. To improve, focus on having the most efficient and symmetrical stroke possible. No need to swim farther than the race distance.
Swim Straight Drill
Pick a course without obstacles. Then swim with your eyes closed for 10 to 20 strokes (counting single arm entries). See where you end up and what needs to be corrected.
Sight Breathing: How and how often
After figuring out how straight you swim, determine how to sight and how often. It's easy to see your destination and target buoys or landmarks while standing on the shore. But when your head is only inches above water, these markers can vanish. Take time to get in the water and find your markers. They may need to be larger or taller than you thought; a land-based object works well, like a tree, building, balloons, or flags. If you're swimming into the sun, consider this factor, as it can be blinding. Try tinted or polarized goggles. If you're not swimming straight, practice sight breathing more often, every 3-5 strokes. Once you've learned to swim straighter, sight less frequently, every 8-10 strokes.
Sight Breathing Drill
As your arm enters the water, press down and slightly lift your head, just enough for your eyes to clear the surface; think "alligator eyes." Take a quick look, turn your head to the side to inhale
, and then put your face back in the water. Alternatively, take your side breath first, follow your arm forward, and sight after your breath. Practice doing this in one smooth motion.
Polo (Tarazan) Drill
Swim like a water polo player or lifeguard: keep your head out of the water, stay still, and use a strong pull and kick. This drill is excellent for strengthening your pull and demonstrating why you don't want to lift your head too high when sighting.
Rounding a Buoy
When approaching a left-turn buoy, pull across and under your body with your left arm. Your right arm (recovery arm) should also cross over toward the buoy. Continue this stroke until you've successfully rounded the buoy. Practice in both directions. If there's a large group at a turn buoy, go to the outside. Swimming in clean water will be faster and help maintain your momentum.
Swimming in a Group
Say goodbye to the peace and comfort of having your own lane in the pool. Embrace the opportunity to swim with a group of friends or competitors. Swimming in a group can be both terrifying and exhilarating. To become more comfortable with this aspect of racing, gather a group of friends, tri club members, or take a clinic together to practice mass starts. Consider participating in a few local open water swim races to gain valuable race experience.
Open Water Swim Workouts
Long endurance swims are a common and essential aspect of open water swim training. For a more enjoyable and faster open water swim, incorporate skills, drills, and speed work to help you transition from survival to performance. Here are three workouts to help you train more efficiently and effectively. Do your homework in open water to see results on race day.
Swim Straight/Navigation Workout
Workout goal: efficient, relaxed, straight endurance swim Warm up for 5 to 15 minutes, incorporate swim drills, establish an effective rhythm of breathing Perform the swim straight drill to determine how straight you swim During a long steady aerobic swim, work on sighting and swimming straight
Workout goal: polo drill for strength, speed, and the ability to lift your head high when needed Warm up for 5 to 15 minutes, incorporate swim drills, establish an effective rhythm of breathing Polo Drill: 3 to 10 rounds of 4 strokes polo, 10 strokes normal swim. Relax between sets. This workout is best done in shorter sections or throughout a longer swim
Speed Skill/Race Efforts
Workout goal: increase speed and stroke rate Warm up for 5 to 15 minutes, incorporate swim drills, establish an effective rhythm of breathing Polo Drill: 1 to 3 rounds of 4 strokes polo, 10 strokes normal swim. Relax between sets. Speed: 3 to 10 rounds of 10 strokes sprint/fast arms, 10 strokes relaxed swim After 1 to 2 rounds, optionally transition into race pace swim as intervals or your race distance This workout is best done in shorter sections or throughout a longer swim
Whenever you have the chance, seize opportunities to swim in open water. By honing specific skills and growing more comfortable in open water, you'll achieve greater success on race day.