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by Scott Bay

May 5, 2021

Open water skills are best practiced in a controlled environment first

Any pool swimmer who’s swum in the open water won’t debate that although many of the skills are the same, open water swimming is a completely different sport. Open water adds to the swimming experience such things as limited visibility, wind, currents, and waves—things that the typical pool swimmer never experiences in the friendly confines of the lane lines.

Although there are a bunch of variables in open water that you don’t experience in the pool, you can and should develop some skills in the pool to help you in a triathlon or an open water race. Three of the most basic ones are swimming straight, sighting, and drafting. Here are a few tips for each skill that you can practice in the pool and refine in your open water practices.

Swimming Straight

In a lane by yourself, swim eight strokes down the center of the lane with your eyes closed. If you bounce off the lane lines or you open your eyes after eight strokes and are way off center, you’re probably putting more pressure on the water with one of your hands. Repeat the process paying particular attention to the pressure from each hand. Add a snorkel to your workout until you get the kinesthetic awareness of equal pressure on the water on both sides to help you swim straight.


The straighter you swim, the less you have to sight—so practice swimming straight first. But you do need to learn how to sight and you can practice it in the pool. “Alligator eyes” is a great technique for flat water: Lift your head just enough to get your eyes over the waterline for a quick peek out front, while maintaining your usual side breathing. Sighting in rough water sometimes means getting your whole head out of the water at the crest of a wave and breathing to the front. But when you lift your head, your hips sink and this kills momentum. Practice lifting your head out of the water and breathing to the front, and as you lower your head back down, increase your kick to keep your momentum going.


Unlike cycling, in which the draft is directly behind, the draft in swimming is off to one side and behind the hip of the lead swimmer, similar to the V formation that geese fly in. As the lead swimmer (or goose) sheds vortices, the leader provides both lift and pull that can be felt by the drafter. In the pool you can feel this by swimming in a V formation with your lanemates and finding that sweet spot back and to the side. Experiment as both the leader and the drafter so you can feel the differences and make adjustments when you get to open water.

All of these skills are best practiced in the stable environment of the pool first. When you get to the open water and the environment is shifting, you’ll be more able to adapt your technique to the conditions at hand.


  • Open Water


  • Open Water