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by Scott Bay

August 10, 2022

Sharpen your open water skills by practicing in a controlled environment

There’s a huge difference between open water swimming and pool swimming. Just ask anyone who has experienced both.

Although these two types of swimming require a similar skill set, they’re completely different. So why would an open water swimmer want to spend time in a pool?

The Pool is Like a Laboratory

You’re always thinking when you’re swimming in the open water, whether it’s wind, current, water temperature, or many other things—and that’s all part of the draw.

This means you need good swimming skills that you can rely on depending on all those factors. Here’s a short list of skills, factors, and habits to make sure your open water swimming is enhanced by the time you spend in the pool.

  • Pace. This is one of the big ones for many open water swimmers. When you go long on an open water swim, you tend to get into a comfortable rhythm or zone. This is both good and bad. That feel-good pace may tend to get slower or stay the same the more you do it. Get in the pool, and you have a clock and a measured distance, so pace becomes less about feel and more about metrics. That comfortable pace that you thought was pretty fast might not be when you put it to the test in the pool.
  • Speed. If you want to swim faster on race day, you must swim faster in practice. This is hard to gauge in open water. Lots of factors affect the speed of your swim, especially currents and tides. You might be working harder but not swimming faster. Making stroke adjustments in the pool is much easier because it’s a controlled environment. You can isolate a few things at a time while you’re making changes. Furthermore, because it’s a standard environment in terms of distance, time, and conditions, it’s often easier to see the impact of one adjustment to stroke and speed. If you have a knowledgeable coach on deck, that’s absolute gold when it comes to getting faster. If you’re a solo swimmer, there are many technique articles and videos on that’ll provide helpful advice, as well as a directory of coaches who may be able to provide help.
  • Intervals and training. Triathletes and open water swimmers without a competitive pool swimming background know the importance of interval training for their speed and fitness. Runners do repeats at the track. Cyclists work with speed intervals. Swimmers do the same kind of training. Why? Because they’re measuring things, it gives them an indication of both fitness and speed—they can track improvements and make changes. This is tough to do in the open water but very easy to control in the pool.
  • Skills and drills. Open water skills such as drafting, sighting, and feeding are all skills you should practice and perfect in the open water. The pool offers a safe and controlled environment for you to learn these skills, so when you have the added variables of wind, current, chop, etc., you have a developed skill set, and your open water experience can be used to enhance those skills.

Happy Balance?

Metrics and the controlled environment are certainly advantages for pool training, but as anyone who was done open water swimming will tell you, there’s no substitute for being out there.

How much time in the pool do you need? Some swimmers would say not much, and others would say quite a bit. They’re both right.

Look at your strengths and opportunities, and figure out what works for you.

There’s no substitute for time spent in open water—experience is a great teacher. But if you want to go from the back of the pack to the front, it’s a great idea to find a good Masters program with a coach knowledgeable about open water swimming. When you go to the pool, communicate why you’re there so your coach can help you get the most out of your time in the pool.


  • Triathlon
  • Open Water


  • Training