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by Molly Hoover

March 4, 2021

You can still do a pool-like workout in the open water if your pool isn’t open

More pools are opening across the country, but some areas still aren’t back to normal because of space restrictions and programming needs. This means pool-only swimmers might have to venture into the open water for a good workout.

Many open water swims are a timed out-and-back that can be varied in both effort and duration. Although it’s not easy or straightforward to break up an open water session into more of a pool workout feel, it’s possible.

Before You Start

To safely adapt your pool swimming to the open water, there are a couple of items you should pick up.

  • A watch of some sort that can be used while you swim. If you don’t want to invest in a smartwatch, a simple waterproof digital watch will do.
  • A tow float that can be used to carry refueling items, float upon if you run into trouble, and help passing boat traffic more easily spot you.
  • A buddy. Never swim alone.

You’ll also need to do some homework.

First, find a resting point, possibly a shallow beach or a dock. Just like the wall in the pool, you’ll rest here between “sets.” Next, take a little time to figure out your course.

Starting from your resting point, time yourself while swimming to a landmark not too far away. If you know your time for a 25 freestyle in the pool, you can use your watch to figure out approximately how many yards it was based on your time. You can also count your strokes if you know how many you take in a pool.

There isn’t a limit on how long or short you make your course. Just know at which landmark you want to stop to make your sets consistent.

When I did this, I set my course by starting at a beach and swam along the shore to a neighboring dock. This took me enough time that I figured it was about 100 yards. I swam back and timed it again with the same result.

Pool Sets Adapted for Open Water

IM training

Set your course for 100 yards.

  • 100 IM broken up by stroke count that would normally happen in a pool (for me that’s 12 strokes butterfly, 18 strokes backstroke, 10 strokes breaststroke, and finish freestyle to the dock) on 20 seconds rest.
  • 100 build freestyle, on 30 seconds rest.

Repeat for 10 rounds

Sprint and recovery

Set your course to somewhere between 25 and 50 yards.

  • 1 length fast, 1 length easy, 20 seconds rest
  • 2 lengths fast, 1 length easy, 20 seconds rest
  • 3 lengths fast, 1 length easy, 20 seconds rest
  • 4 lengths fast, 1 length easy, 20 seconds rest

Repeat three or four times.

Stroke work

Set your course between 50 and 100 yards.

  • Swim 10 fast backstroke strokes, roll over, do five long breaststroke strokes, repeat until you reach your end point. 15 seconds rest

Repeat six to 10 lengths.

More stroke work

Set your course to 25 yards.

  • 10 x 25s, 20 to 30 seconds rest (one fast butterfly stroke, finish freestyle; two fast butterfly strokes, finish freestyle; three fast butterfly strokes, finish freestyle; etc.

Repeat all the way up to 10 strokes butterfly.

Final Thoughts

This approach to open water turned out to be great for me, and I stopped dreading the monotony of swimming freestyle out and back. You can add a warm-up and kick set and use a pull buoy and fins if you have a place to store them while you’re not using them.

Don’t limit yourself, and don’t try to compare your open water swimming to actual pool swimming—it’s different. It’s a nice change of pace for those looking to mix things up a bit if you’ve spent a year of pretending to be a long distance or open water swimmer while your pool was closed.

The possibilities are endless. Don’t get too hung up on exact distances or pace times. Think of “fast” and “easy” in terms of effort. Also, remember that safety is first, so adjust anything based on the space you have in which to swim safely.


  • Open Water
  • Technique and Training


  • Open Water
  • Workouts