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+.
You’re not a single-sport pool swimmer, so why would you train like one?
Whenever freestyle swimming technique is discussed, names of fast and famous pool swimmers are tossed about: Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Katie Ledecky and Sun Yang, to name a few. Their technique is viewed and analyzed from the tips of their fingers to the points of their toes. These record-setting athletes have many commonalities in their technique that can be broken down and taught to young and novice swimmers. The question is, should triathletes be learning the skills to swim fast in a pool, or does the different environment warrant a different technique altogether?
The pool is a very controlled environment, while open water can vary from a calm lake to a rough ocean. Pool swimmers develop an unchanging stroke technique for maximum efficiency while moving through calm water. Triathletes, on the other hand, must be able to change their technique from race to race (or even within a single race) to adapt to the weather and water conditions. Some stroke variations include single-sided breathing away from chop, high hand recovery over waves, and short or compressed strokes when surrounded by other athletes.
Race footage of pool swimmers will show some breathing to a single side for an entire event. However, a majority of these swimmers will spend 90 percent of training breathing to both sides. They develop a balanced and even stroke during practice and use their dominant side when racing to consume more oxygen. There are many reasons for triathletes to embrace bilateral breathing: the water and weather conditions, the proximity of other athletes, the placement of buoys, the direction of the sun, etc. These frequently shifting conditions require triathletes to be confident breathing to the non-dominant side.
In a calm lane, swimmers can take a breath very close to the surface of the water. Coaches call this “one goggle in, one goggle out” breathing. This is a very efficient technique, but it isn’t always possible in open, choppy waters. Trying to maintain a low-profile breathing technique in these conditions will result in a lung full of water. Stay efficient while breathing with a higher profile or turn your face slightly backward into your armpit to find a clean breath of air.
A swimmer can compete with a 4–6-beat kick from start to finish, while a triathlete might use a light, less frequent two-beat kick to take the rest of the race—and the mandate on the legs for the bike and the run—into consideration. The kick provides a very small percentage of forward propulsion, but swimmers are trying to knock portions of seconds off their times, so the additional kick is necessary. Meanwhile, a triathlete is trying to efficiently complete the swim leg with a minimal effect on the other two disciplines. While a two-beat kick will help with rotation and increase power in the pull phase, the additional kicking can be detrimental to the overall race.
The conditions are starkly different from swimming in a pool to swimming in open water, and learning to swim like a pool swimmer can be detrimental to your development as an open-water athlete. After developing stroke skills in the pool, you should focus on developing an efficient stroke technique for the open water.
Swimsmooth.com’s Paul Newsome compared the stroke rate (or strokes per minute) between the medalists in the men’s Olympic 1500m swim and the 1500m swim at the start of the men’s Olympic triathlon. Here’s what he found:
This trend of high stroke rate persists with the top female triathletes as well as the best open-water swimmers in the world. A higher rate allows triathletes to adapt to any water conditions—especially choppy waves—and recover quickly from interrupted strokes caused by colliding with other athletes.