For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
As triathletes, we almost always race in open-water, but so much of our training revolves around pool swimming that it can mean we are woefully unprepared for what we might encounter on race day. Access to open water isn’t easy for everyone, but don’t let that stop you from perfecting your open-water swim skills — like sighting, drafting, and pacing—in the pool.
Open-Water Swim Skills: Sighting Set
Place a water bottle or bright cone at the end of the lane. Complete a regular swim workout in its entirety but add three “sights” per lap when swimming toward the cone. During the course of an Ironman swim, most athletes will sight more than 300 times, so practicing in training is important. Improve your efficiency by only lifting your eyes out of the water—not your whole head—and taking a quick glance forward.
Open-Water Swim Skills: Drafting Set
Set up a training date with a few swimmers of similar speed. After warming up, regroup for a main set of 400s. Circle swim in one lane and start directly on the feet of the athlete in front of you. After each 100, the lead swimmer pauses on the wall to let the rest of the group pass and then rejoins the back of the group (think of how a cycling pack rotates). Repeat the 400s on an interval that gives 30 seconds rest.
Also try reversing the rotation of the group to make the set more challenging. After every 100, the last swimmer sprints to the front of the group to take the lead.
Open-Water Swim Skills: Preparation Set
Plan for the expected—and the unexpected—to happen in open water. An uneventful swim rarely happens in triathlon, so it’s important to be prepared for this. Check out this main set designed to mimic some of the issues that can occur on race day:
10 x 200 with :20 rest, as:
1, 2 – 50 sprint, 50 easy, repeat
3, 4 – 25 back, 25 breast, 150 free
5 – 100 free, climb out and dive back in, 100 free
6, 7 – fill goggles with water, fix them while swimming
8, 9 – 50 breathing every 5 strokes, 50 normal breathing, repeat
10 – 25 sprint kick, 75 swim, repeat
When You Make it to a Lake, Ocean, etc.
You made it to a body of water other than a pool! Now practice these race-specific scenarios:
Beach starts: Run into the water, dolphin dive, and swim 10–20 strokes fast. Swim easy back to the beach and repeat.
Deep-water starts: Tread water for 30 seconds and then swim 10–20 strokes fast. Swim easy for a few strokes to regroup and repeat.
Drafting: Similar to the pool workout, pair up with swimmers of a similar speed, and swim in a line between two points in the open water. Switch the leader every 1–2 minutes.
Swim straight: Swim to a buoy 50–100m away without sighting, and note which way you went off course. Adjust your track each time until you can swim to the buoy without looking.