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Mon 20th Sep 2021
Open water: Don't swim, TRAIN!
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Thursday 3rd May 2012

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It's the beginning of May, and the open water lake facilities are, despite the best efforts of the recent cold weather, beginning to open up for business. How many of you typically turn up to 'your' lake, and the usual swim of two (or three, or four...) laps of wherever you happen to be forms the entirety of the session? That's swimming, but is it really training?

With that in mind (and a guilty 'yes' to the question above from us too...), we asked Dan Bullock of SwimForTri ( for some thoughts and ideas of what we could be doing differently in the water, to make better use of our open water swimming sessions. With a little bit of thought and planning, you can make a lot more use of your open water swimming hours.

Open Water Training. Not just 'Swimming', Training.

After 3km of swimming at a recent fitness session I host, the swimmers were offered a 200 swim-down knowing the hardest part of the session was still to come. Most reached for fins and pull buoys, some talked and rested. The one Kona Qualifier in the group, having identified a weakness in her stroke worked this aspect for the swim-down. Some people will watch Hawaii Ironman year after year and some will race it.

I mention this as approaching us soon will be open water season, where week after week I watch people in our fitness lake try to make 4-5 laps in the time allowed. As triathletes, have we become so fitness obsessed that we have forgotten that so much more could be practiced in a fitness session? As a swimmer you should have a session plan prepared that should challenge, motivate and inspire. Invariably an open water swim means just that, swim loops for an hour trying to simply add more distance in the time you have regularly available. With a coached pool session, to just be given a 4km swim would be dull for the swimmer and coach; most would expect a warm up, sub set, main set, some skills and a swim down. Why shouldn't similar thought and preparation go into an open water swim training session as compared to your pool-based swim?

Open Water Swimming


Not always will you be familiar with the open water venue you have access to and you may need to think about a different approach. For instance, while on holiday you may have the opportunity to swim in the sea so you are going to struggle to get an idea of exact distances swum. Due to the lack of swim buoys or fixed points we need to look elsewhere for a measure, a means to give some structure and meaning to an open water training session.

If you add or adopt some heart rate (HR) principles towards training or the Fartlek style of training you can recreate something of an interval session during your open water swims. Instead of a distance-based target, if your coach is familiar with your zones they might challenge you to swim to heart rate. Your interval could also be HR based leading to a set such as 15 x 2mins Front Crawl (FC) with a target of 80% of your max HR and a resting period interval of waiting to recover down to 60% of your max HR. This means when you finished your 2min swim you would check your HR to ensure it was 80% of your maximum. You would check it repeatedly until it fell to 60% of your maximum HR. This style of training is highly individualised. For the triathlete coming from a non-swimming background and unfamiliar with swim specific times/aims these types of training will make a lot of sense.

Fartlek training is also a simple training style for longer continuous swims. As an example swim 4mins at a continuous steady aerobic effort then break into, 1min FC fast. Don't allow the 4mins to become too easy; it is not a swim down from the fast swim. Ensure the speed change on the fast 1min is significant. A firmer, more accurate catch, a final accelerated push through the triceps at the back of the stroke and a leg kick are three key items for speed rather then flailing the arms and picking up turnover. This kind of set will deliver great endurance and some speed work.


I hear the same comments regarding not being allowed to use swim equipment in the local pool. Come the weekend and we all head to the local lakes, but how many remember to pack their swim equipment? No one is going to mind you using it here. Given the appropriate land based warm up ahead of time and entering the water prepared, I do not see why open water swimming cannot involve regular swim equipment. Last year I used a central snorkel for the first time in open water. This gave more time to work on the central pathways of the hands as they pulled under the body. With fins and paddles added while wearing your snorkel you can really get a great sensation of the body traveling over a ‘locked’ hand. Even without the clarity of a pool to see exactly where the hands are, just by keeping the head still for extended periods my stroke felt stronger. The other advantage is the way it allows for a very low ‘sight’ providing the water is calm enough. With the snorkel on there is no need to lift the head excessively, reminding you not to breathe while lifting, sighting and facing forwards.

Fins. While life guarding our open water swims I carry my fins in case I need to assist anyone quickly. Eventually it dawned on me why not also swim around the lake in them. I have found them to be of use during general FC swims and when kicking. For those with tight ankles, more swimming with fins means the greater surface area of the fin will help mobilize the ankle region. Full stroke obviously feels faster if you want to add a fast lap to work on accurate arm movements. By pointing toes to the bottom of the lake and increasing drag for 5-6 strokes before returning to streamline for 15-20 strokes will have the arms working harder making an effective improvised Fartlek Pull session. The sensation of acceleration when returning the legs to streamline is very powerful.

Open Water Swimming

Train to race

Think about the specifics of your main open water race and try to adjust your training accordingly. Will it be two loops? Are you comfortable to exit, experience a HR spike and then a return to the water yet keep your swim technique under control, which happens in a multi-loop race? Unless instructed I see few people practice this aspect at many of the Lakes I visit. Many hang around enjoying a chat before eventually heading off on bikes losing the effectiveness of biking off the swim. It is rare to see anyone bring rollers or a turbo to their lakes unless instructed to.

Is your swim likely to be against a strong current? Sun shining from a certain side affecting breathing? The more you bring from your race into your training the more likely you will make it of more interest and reduce the surprises on race day. Will you be slower/working harder for the first 1000m of an Olympic distance race due to swimming upstream? Then given a chance to cruise back downstream at a faster rate with the current, similar to how Windsor typically unfolds? (Add drag shorts for a hard 14min swim. Then remove for 6mins faster swimming if you race around the 20min mark for 1500m.)

Of late, the swimmers at our lake have seen me doing kick sets using a surfboard as a kick float. This is possibly a bit excessive for most triathletes but since I race mostly open water events now I need a strong sprint finish so don't copy everything you see me do!

For more information on open water sessions, swim coaching, workshops and overseas camps visit

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