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How to Prepare for Open-Water Swimming in the Pool

Don't have access to the open water? You can practice all of these open-water swimming drills at your neighborhood pool.

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Most triathletes don’t have such easy access to open water for training. It could be because of cold winter temperatures and frozen water, polluted or unsafe conditions, heavy motorboat traffic or just a lack of nearby options for open-water training.

Instead of settling for being ill-prepared for race season or endangering yourself by trying to train in unsuitable waters, try some of these training tips during your next swim.

Flip at the T

During a normal swim set, every wall is a chance to rest, relax and recover before the next lap. However, there are no walls every 25 or 50 meters in the open water. One way to prepare yourself is by doing a long swim (500 to 1000 meters) without touching the wall. Instead of turning at the wall and pushing off with your legs, flip at the T (at the end of the underwater lane marker), or five feet before the wall. You will lose all of your forward momentum and be forced to use your arms and legs to get moving again. Caution: This can be stressful on your shoulders, so be sure to also use your legs to accelerate after you flip. As with all activities, don’t overdo it.

Sight Your Coach

During my first few months as a swim coach, I discovered why coaches always pace along the pool deck. Usually, it is to communicate with swimmers in other lanes, but sometimes it’s just to keep warm or for personal entertainment. Use this random movement to your advantage: Pretend your coach is a big, orange inflated buoy. Practice sighting for your coach during a drill set. Lift your head forward, scan the horizon for the coach/buoy, turn your head to the side for a breath and then continue swimming. Do this no more than five times per lap (25 yards).

Water Polo Drill

Water polo players never seem to have a hard time swimming with their heads out of the water—it’s part of the sport. So, let’s take a page out of their book and train with our heads out of the water. There are many reasons you might need to do this in a real open-water situation (cold temperatures, feet in your face, hard-to-find buoys, etc). Swim the entire lap with your head up (ex: 6x25m). Don’t turn your head to the side to breathe; that’s cheating! This is a great way to build strength in your neck and make you aware of how your lower body sinks when your head is raised. Performing this drill with small paddles on makes for a grueling strength workout, but this puts a lot of stress on the rotator cuff, so don’t get carried away.

Dolphin Dive

Along with having access to more lakes than I know what to do with, I also train at a pool that has a zero-entry end. The bottom of the pool gradually slopes up to the deck, just like a beach. Here, I have the opportunity to practice dolphin diving. You can also use the shallow end or the kiddy pool. Caution: Make sure you are familiar with the depth of the whole area you are using, and always lead with your hands as you dive to the bottom to protect your head and neck.

Hypoxic Breathing

The importance of lung capacity is often overlooked. Open water can seem much less intimidating if you can hold your breath for a long period of time or are comfortable not taking in air every three strokes. Situations like cold-water shock, chop and splash, or dunking at the buoy are very common during an event. Working on a hypoxic breathing-pattern set, or gradually increasing the number of strokes you take between breaths, is a great way to prepare for some of these situations. An example is a 5x100m set in which you breathe every three strokes the first lap, every five strokes on the second, every seven strokes on the third and every nine strokes (or not at all) on the last lap.

Turn in the Middle

Rarely will a triathlon or open-water swim have a 180-degree turn on the course, as sending swimmers head-on toward competitors is not the best idea. Thus, 90-degree turns are the norm. Pretend there is a buoy in the middle of your lane, swim towards it and make a U-turn around it. You can use a teammate as a buoy, bring an inflated buoy, use a mark on the bottom of the pool, or just your imagination. The point is: Practice your turns! Do some 180-degree turns as well—it can’t hurt to be over-prepared!

Three Wide

Most swimming lanes are two to three meters wide. This is just enough space to cram you and a pair of teammates side by side. Do 6x25m sets fast, where you alternate which position each person starts in. The middle slot is the most fun and should be fought over.


Here’s where the fun starts! Take advantage of a long set, like repeat 300s or 400s, and put swimmers of similar abilities in the same lanes. Each swimmer should start one second apart, basically one after another, and try to stay right on the leader’s feet. Don’t forget to alternate who leads the lane after each interval.

How to Use Them

These fun and challenging drills can be incorporated into a regular swim practice. After a while, training in the pool can get a bit repetitive (especially after 20 years) and anything to mix up the tedium is a welcome change. Not only will these drills give you a little mental boost, they will also prepare you for your first, second or 100th triathlon. Be creative, original and inventive with your drills. These are just some guidelines to inspire your own training ideas. Combine multiple drills (like Three Wide and Water Polo) to make another day at the pool more enjoyable. Remember, the most important thing is to feel confident and prepared when you are on the starting line.