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Drills / Open Water / Stroke Technique / Training / Triathlon

From the Pool to Open Water

Training strategies for success in triathlon

Erica Smith | November 13, 2012

It's undeniable: many triathletes consider themselves cyclists or runners and regard the first part of the race as something to be tolerated, or worse, feared. Swimming in a frenzied open-water pack can indeed be a frightening prospect for the uninitiated, but deconstructing the swim into manageable parts makes all the difference. By refocusing your training efforts, not only will you have a better swim leg—you might even enjoy it!

The first priority is adapting your stroke to both long distance and open water environments, where conditions are variable and unpredictable. To maintain your stroke, you must focus on balance (maintaining a good line—with your head, spine and legs aligned) and rotation. This lays the groundwork for a consistent, sustainable pace. Symmetrical rotation, best achieved with bilateral breathing, driven by a strong core and balanced by a moderate kick, will enable you to get the most distance per stroke without overtaxing your shoulders. Remember this: freestyle is not simply the coordination of arms and legs—it is a core-driven stroke, dependent on body roll to set momentum.

Several drills can adapt your stroke for distance and open water swimming. Bear in mind that kicking in distance freestyle is primarily to maintain balance—forget about any significant impact on forward propulsion—kicking cadence should be minimized until the last 100-200 meters. As you add your stroke, think about the catch with fingertips stretching forward with high elbows. Achieving a steady stroke rhythm will help to ensure relaxation while swimming, and you will be better able to respond and adjust to a range of open water conditions.

Whether it's your first open water swim or your fifth of the season, it is necessary to have a race plan, and this means knowing your pace. All workouts in the pool should feature pace work, and not by simply swimming the distance you'll swim in your upcoming race. Learn to use the pace clock or a wristwatch with which you can keep track of your time per 100 yards or meters, and then record your progress in a training journal, such as the Fitness Log (FLOG) available on usms.org. The pace you use in the pool should be a reflection of the pace you believe you can sustain for the distance of your race—remember that you are not sprinting, so don't train like a sprinter. When it comes to triathlon, you've got to ensure that you'll have the energy (and the legs) for the latter two parts of the race. Using the sample set below will help to track your ability to maintain pace.

It goes without saying that it's highly advantageous to train as much as possible in an open water environment to prepare for an open water swim. The open water workouts should complement your pool workouts; now your goal is to acclimate to the new environment while attempting to maintain the efficient technique and sustainable pace you've practiced in the pool. Try to swim a measurable distance and keep track of time in your FLOG, while calculating your pace per 100 yards or meters to compare to your pool pace.

Because of the variable conditions presented in open water swims, it can be difficult to predict performance. But being prepared means preparing for these factors with drills in both the pool and in open water. Without having the black line on the bottom of the pool for guidance, being able to sight properly to navigate will alleviate the sense of being out of control. In the pool, practice different ways of sighting and find a comfortable stroke pattern that accommodates a seamless and effective sight. Sighting too frequently will result in shoulder fatigue and neck and back pain, so sight only when necessary and focus on balance and rotation the rest of the time to maintain proper body position, even in swell and chop.

Having training partners for open water workouts is always helpful to prepare for pack swimming, which can seem daunting to a novice. There's no getting around it—there will be frequent contact with other swimmers in an open water event. If you feel apprehensive, it's best to practice pack swimming with your training partners and always remember to focus on what you can control: maintaining your balance, rotation, steady breathing pattern and stroke rate. Being prepared, keeping it simple, and staying calm are the keys to a successful and fun open water swim.

Pool Training Drills for Open Water

Finding your center of balance

With a kickboard under your hips as you float horizontally, gradually move into a streamline position. Shift the board until you are not pitching either forward or backward. Once you have found your center of balance, work to maintain that position without the kickboard while streamlining off the wall, adding kick, and progressing into catch-up drill (one of the best drills for distance freestyle).

Pace training

A simple set that can be repeated each workout is 5 x 100, during which you are attempting to hold the exact same time per 100, stay relaxed, and record your time and heart rate after each. Over the course of your training season, you can evaluate your progress and create a race plan based on your sustainable pace.

Sighting drills

To start, try lifting the eyes just above the water, looking forward as your hand enters for the catch—your forward hand will anchor you and help to maintain balance. This low profile sight will be sufficient to see your position relative to other swimmers during the race. Once you've mastered this, you can practice elevating slightly higher, as if sighting for turn buoys on the racecourse, again using your forward hand to anchor yourself.

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About the Author—Erica Smith

Erica Smith is an open water swimmer and former NCAA All-American swimmer. She's currently an assistant coach for the men's and women's swim teams at Eastern Michigan University, where she's working toward a masters degree in exercise physiology. Erica owns and operates BuoyantSwim, a triathlon swim clinic series in southeast Michigan.

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