With summer in full swing, lakes and oceans are warming up, making open water swimming a more inviting prospect than our regular pool sets. Open water swimming is race specific and a great way to add something new to refresh our minds at a time when training stress tends to be high and boredom can be setting in.

Adding open water swims to your program allows a change in training stimulus that can lead to improved swimming for race day and also allows you to develop skills needed for racing that you simply can’t develop in a pool. Besides, many athletes can panic in open water and training in this environment quickly allows you to get over any fear or certainly learn to cope better to improve confidence for the race.

Fear factor

While not affecting everyone, it is common for athletes to panic in open water while they are totally fine swimming in a pool. Many factors are at play here, from early childhood experiences with swimming, to fear of not being able to see anything under water, and many, many more.

Such fear manifests typically in hyperventilation, a sense of restriction in the neck and just wanting to get out the water. These symptoms normally strike straight after getting into the water or after a couple of minutes, and then gradually fade until the athlete is able to swim just fine.

We can use our experience with this to prevent it from happening during a race: if we know we are going to panic, then we can accept it as normal and make sure to get in the water early for a good warm-up and allow that panic to occur—and subside—during the warm-up.

Typically a 10-minute warm-up in the water will allow the panic to pass and have you ready to race.

Swim warm-up:

2min very easy continuous swim

Breathing intervals: 20 strokes breathing every 2 strokes, 30 breathing every 3, and 40 breathing every 4.

2×12 strokes hard without breathing, take a 30-second to 1-minute break after interval

2min very easy continuous swim

This set gets you used to being in the water and fully opens up the lungs readying them for racing, or your training session.


When we do our first open water swims, we normally find that our arms fatigue very quickly which totally affects the speed we swim at. The reason for this is the constant swimming without turns; while a turn in the pool only takes a second or 2, it gives the body a mini break and allows us to swim harder for longer without fatigue. This can already be noticed when moving from a 25m pool to a 50m pool but is even more pronounced in open water.

When starting out with open water swims, do not think about speed—simply swim easy and relaxed and get used to being in constant motion without rest. The strength adaption to open water swimming only takes a couple of weeks and at that point you can start to work on more specific sessions. I like to test this development of strength using a simple test.

Test for strength:

Swim – 3x (5min straight ahead easy effort, then turn around and swim back moderate)

If you take the same time or more on the way back, then you’re not ready to progress to harder open water swims without compromising technique. Ideally you should be coming back 30-60 seconds faster (note that currents and waves can affect this though and need to be taken into account).

An extra point that may be leading to fatigue is the fit of your wetsuit. While modern wetsuits are extremely flexible, you must make sure you put them on correctly; if you don’t, it will affect performance. I always like to spend at least 10 minutes putting on a wetsuit before swimming; make sure the suit is symmetrical on both legs and arms, not twisted. Also the neck should be high and comfortable instead of leading to a pulling restricted feeling.


The one thing you simply can’t practice in the pool is navigation. You can get used to looking forward while swimming but navigation in the pool is too simple due to the black line on the floor. When we swim in open water we normally have buoys to show the course. Often these can be hard to see from land when looking out over the course and they become even more difficult to notice from the water.

When swimming open water, it is best to use landmarks to sight off as these will be much easier to see from the water. For example, check out the race course on the day prior if possible—get in the water and sight to the buoys you will be swimming around, then look for a major landmark in line with the buoy and you will use this as your primary focus on race day.

Sighting the course is not the only navigational issue. Even if you can see where to go, that does not mean you are going to swim straight. With doing most of our swimming in a pool, we tend to have a stroke that is not very symmetrical. We never notice this in the pool as our brains auto-adjust stroke to the sight of the black line along the bottom with every stroke we take.

Once we head into open water and no longer have this black line, we tend to see athletes veer off course unintentionally, swimming to either the right or left side of where they want to go. To start correcting this, we can use a series of breathing and sighting drills.

Drills for developing a straight swim:

To start, swim 40 strokes breathing every 2 strokes and sighting every 4th stroke. Once successful in swimming straight, do 40 strokes breathing every 2 strokes and sighting ever 6th stroke. Continue on this path until you can swim 40 strokes maintaining a straight course without sighting.

Race specifics

All the above is about getting us used to the open water and making sure we can get around the course without concern but it does not look at some other race specifics that will significantly improve your performance. Drafting in open water, as on the bike, saves us a lot of energy or significantly improves our speed for the same effort.

Learning to swim on feet should be a big part of your open water training. On race day we will be looking to get onto the feet of a swimmer who is faster than us and take a ride with them. This sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. The problem is that no two swimmers are the same and none of us swim totally straight so we end up having to adjust position often in order to stay on feet. This has to be done every 2 to 3 seconds at times or else you lose the feet and quickly slow down as a result and then there is no way back!

Swimming well on feet requires extreme concentration and for whatever reason most of us tend to drift of and lose focus more during swimming than in any other discipline. There is another situation here we need to be aware of: we might have a swimmer who is terrible at navigation but very fast. It may be annoying to swim on their feet always changing direction but most times you will have a faster swim if you stay on their feet, even if it means you swim a longer course.

When you train in open water, it is always best to swim with at least one other swimmer for safety. On top of that, having a group allows for great specific training. For example you can set out a course and have one swimmer at the front purposely going off course several times but your job is to follow and always stay on feet. You can get used to doing this very quickly and you will find that your concentration in the water improves rapidly.

Open water swimming will add a new element to your triathlon training and can lead to a big improvement in your race performance.

Enjoy your training!

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