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Open Water

Training for Open Water

You’ve selected an event—now what?

Elaine K. Howley | July 9, 2014

Just like in the pool, training for an open water race or event works best when you set goals and train consistently. Although swimming a lot in open water would seem logical, most open water swimmers don’t train there exclusively. Rather, they use the pool strategically to maintain some speed. The pool can also be a good, safe place to work on your nutrition and get comfortable with the concept of eating and drinking while treading water.

What’s Your Goal?

Building a training program for an open water swim depends on one thing primarily: What do you want to achieve? If the answer is a 1-mile ocean race, then your training plan should include a focus on sighting, learning how to turn at a buoy, and getting used to transitioning quickly from prone in the water to running up on shore to the finish line. All of these things take practice, and you can conduct drills both in open water and the pool to help you prepare.

If, however, you’re aiming to complete a long-distance solo swim like a Catalina Channel crossing, you don’t need to practice sighing or buoy turns, rather you need to nail down your nutrition for the 8 to 15 hours most swims take and learn to cope with the psychological challenges such a long swim can present. This kind of training will also likely take place in the pool and open water and it’s smart to mix up your training and surroundings to help you stay motivated.

These two ends of the spectrum distance-wise will also require different amounts of training. For a one-mile ocean swim, doing a typical Masters workout three times a week is probably sufficient. For a channel swim, logging upwards of 60 miles a month or more is not uncommon. Getting in this kind of yardage will require dedication and a strong desire to meet challenges as they arise, whether they be shoulder injuries from overuse, the boredom that can settle in during an especially long training session, or juggling the demands of work and family life disrupting your training time.

Want a Coach?

Finding a coach who has experience with open water swimming can help, but it’s not a requirement. If you do your homework and connect with other open water swimmers, you can build your own program. Still, having the external motivation of a coach can help on those days when you just don’t feel like jumping into an icy lake at dawn.

Similarly, you’ll find you come to rely on your training buddies to get through the drudgery of lots of training. One of the best ways to train is to gather together a group of swimmers who are all training for the same event, say Lake George 10K National Championship event in New York, and support each other. That way, you can keep each other motivated and share what you learn as you go. This approach can also provide variability in your training plans. For example, have each member of the group draft the workout for a day of the week to keep yourself from falling into the same old workout rut each time.

A smart training plan for open water will usually include a ramp-up phase that merges into a high-volume phase. As your body adapts, you can add yet more distance until you hit the taper period shortly before your big event. In this way, training for an open water event follows the same general pattern as any other swim training program you’re likely to experience in the pool.

Typically, most swimmers will peak out distance-wise anywhere from six weeks to 10 days before the big day, and then spend the rest of the time doing maintenance swims, resting, hydrating, and eating well during taper. The standard rule of thumb for most endurance events is whatever mileage you can comfortably complete in a week, you stand a good chance of being able to finish in a single session with consistent training at that level. Many marathon swimmers opt to top out at about three-quarters of the total distance they intend to swim during an event. So for them, a 15-mile training swim would probably be the longest training session they complete in preparation for a 20-mile event. This approach is very similar to the advice given by many marathon running programs.

Find Your Own Path

That said, all of these suggestions are just that: suggestions. Ultimately, you will need to develop your own program and find out what works for you. Each swimmer—his physiology, goals, and psychological approach—is different, and his preparation will also be unique. What works for one person might not be the optimal choice for you. Still, using other swimmers’ experiences as a jumping off point to build a program is generally a good idea, so ask around and find a swimmer who has completed your goal swim. Ask how she prepared and whether she felt like her plan worked well.

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About the Author—Elaine K. Howley

Elaine K. Howley is Associate Editor of U.S. Masters Swimming. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she edits and writes for SWIMMER magazine, USMS.org, and the STREAMLINES eNewsletter series. 

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