Is Open-Water Swim Training Necessary?

Ah, the comfort of a lap pool: calm water, walls to push off, lane lines to keep you swimming straight. Is it enough to prepare for a race?

Photo: Nils Nilsen

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Can you properly prepare for a triathlon without doing any open-water swimming?

Ah, the comfort of a lap pool: calm water, walls to push off, lane lines to keep you swimming straight. The pool is the perfect place to focus on your stroke and work on speed, but when it comes to translating that to a successful triathlon swim, is pool practice enough? For this  debate, we put Sara McLarty up against Michael Collins, head coach of Orange County Multisport and Irvine Nova Masters program.

Michael: I love to swim in open water—when the conditions are nice. Super-windy, wild, choppy, cold water? No thanks. Threat of sea life that can bite or sting? No thanks. We rarely get into open water before the first few races of the season. Instead, we prepare in the pool with the following: Wetsuit Wednesdays (aka Club Rubber), drafting sets, eyes-closed 25s, fly/free combo swimming and POW (pool open water) practices with no lane lines and buoys in the water.

Sara: I completely understand that there are things that discourage even the most adventurous athletes from getting in the open water, but no one tells the jellyfish that they aren’t invited to the race! There are plenty of reasons why you should get in the open water prior to racing. One is getting used to the darkness—where you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face—which is a major factor for first timers. Even an “eyes-closed 25” is not going to replicate that feeling.

I like that you invite athletes to wear their wetsuits in the pool. It can give people an opportunity to get comfortable swimming in something that is constricting on the shoulder joints. But I doubt that the pool will ever drop to a chilling temperature comparable to many open-water events. Combine the claustrophobic feeling of being in a wetsuit with the shortness of breath caused by cold water and you have a dangerous combination.

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Michael: You bring up good points about water temperature. Trying to hold your race pace in a wetsuit in cold water feels completely different than doing it in an 82-degree pool without one, as does swimming in a wetsuit-legal warm race. To address that overheated feeling, we do Wetsuit Wednesdays to teach athletes how to swim in hot water. They learn to tone it down when it’s warm, but that they’ll still go fast with decent technique (meaning arms and hips moving at the same speed in a connected fashion).

Sara: You gave lots of great tips for pool training. But if you have the ability to train in open water, embrace it! Gather a group of training partners and make a pact to meet once a month. These opportunities will allow you to try out new equipment and learn how to adjust your stroke for various conditions. At the least, get in the open water at the race site the day before. It will familiarize you with the temperature, the water visibility and the sighting points and buoys.

Triathlete Final Thoughts: Never swam in open water (or just fear it)? You need to suck it up and get in to alleviate some anxiety before your race. If you’re experienced but simply don’t like training in open water, try a local open-water race for a change of pace—it will give you a leg up on the competition.

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