This is an article I wrote for USA Triathlon‘s Coaching magazine. The magazine is for coaches by coaches, and while this is addressed to my fellow coaches, anyone can apply the tips and drills below. What have I missed? Let me know!
Because swimming in the great outdoors is a very different beast to the pool, it is key that we get our athletes experience in the art (and chaos) of open water swimming. Learning to handle the waves, the flotsam and the chaos of pack swimming is vital. Coming up to race day, the more open water practice you can give your swimmers, the better prepared and confident they will be.
Open water is one of the tougher logistical challenges of coaching triathletes. Even pool time is comparatively easy to access! It is always preferable to provide practices in the open water, but if that is not possible (e.g. winter training in the North East), providing open water-specific drills and workouts can help replicate outdoor conditions.
Safety: safety is all the more vital when coaching open water swimming given the reduced control we have relative to the pool. Understand the swimming level of your athletes and know which sections of beach/lake are safe, e.g. lifeguard coverage, depth of water, currents, etc. Check sand and water conditions before sending athletes in to the water. If conditions are not safe, cancel practice. Remember to bring emergency call numbers with you. As in SCUBA diving, (or Navy SEALS if you are so inclined!) consider pairing swimmers of similar standards together to watch over each other. Start early season practices with short out-and-backs to ease your swimmers in gently, and to identify any swimmers who may panic. Remind athletes that normal nutrition and hydration rules apply, even if you have been swimming in cold water. It is important to warm up quickly after – pack warm clothes and maybe a flask of hot coffee.
Open Water Drills: Be sure to incorporate drills into your workouts, in particular open water-specific drills & techniques. Drills are just as important as in the pool, and are one tool guaranteed to boost comfort and performance in the open water. Athletes have a tendency to forget everything you have taught them as they get distracted by alien conditions. Normal, everyday drills can help distract swimmers from the “perils” of the open water, their familiarity helping breed comfort. Drills can include sculling, fingertip drag, reaching and maintaining a long stroke, etc.
Breathing: while everyone naturally has a side they favor when breathing, encouraging them to breathe bilaterally will help prepare them to deal with waves, the sun and the splash of competitors. Do alternate 25m’s breathing every 3, 5, 7 strokes. This can be done in any combination, e.g. 2,3,4,5,6,7 strokes. For open water, breathe to the right for twenty strokes and then alternate. Or breathe every three for 50 strokes, then every five for 50, and so on.
Sighting: Sighting is critical in the open water when you don’t have perfectly clear water, a lane line on the bottom of the pool and lane ropes guiding your path. In the pool have them sight 2-3 times every 25m length. To add difficulty, tell them to close their eyes, and open them only when lifting their heads to sight. This may lead to chaotic practices as your swimmers veer off course, however it will teach them to correct course quickly. Minimize the risk of collisions by giving a set of 25m’s, reducing two-way traffic. Open water drills can be similar: blind swimming towards an assigned buoy will help identify which of your swimmers tend to veer, which can be harder to identify in the pool. It is always fun to have them go one at a time so others can see how quickly we can go off course. Nominate a lead swimmer and a chasing pack with instructions to sight every 10-20 strokes. The lead swimmer should choose a random course, forcing chasing swimmers to sight properly in order to stay on course. Failure to do so results in push-ups or butterfly sets! Finally, head-up swimming (water polo stroke) can help your swimmers adapt to the extra strain of sighting.
Drafting: A good drill here is have your athletes swim in a line, person at the back has to sprint to the front and swim in the lead position, then the person who is now at the back sprints to the front and takes over, and so on. The idea here is to practice drafting and staying on the feet of rivals.
Swim start: first off, are your swimmers starting in water or on land? For beach entry races, practice sprinting from land and teaching your swimmers to get into their rhythm while out of breath. Do 10 x 25m sprint to the water and then 25 strokes fast. This will help them with the initial high tempo of the race. It is important to remind them to swim their own race, to start steady at their pace, not the swimmer beside them.
For water starts, you can practice these by getting your swimmers to bunch together closely and race to the nearest buoy after your whistle start. In a pool, have all your swimmers start in the same lane and swim laps as a group. If you have the luxury of multiple lanes or the entire pool, have them swim up one lane (e.g. lane 1) and down the next (e.g. lane 2) and so on to lane eight. Each lane will be one way traffic but the disorganization should replicate race day conditions.
Finish: Have them exit the water and sprint 50-200m accounting for varying distances to transition zones. Have them swim between two landmarks, exit the water and jog back to the starting point. Mix in squats and burpees to get the legs and lungs working, and for your viewing pleasure!
T1 practice: after swim practice have them exit water and launch into some high tempo running and/or exercises such as burpees, squats, push-ups to replicate the sprint to transition. After practice make them towel off and change quickly (less than 90 seconds) to simulate rapid transitions – last swimmer ready buys the ice cream!
Mental skills: Half the battle of open water is managing your brain and its desire to panic. Equipping your athletes with mental strength to deal with unpredictable and uncomfortable conditions will help them cope on race day. Teach them to relax when swimming, to positively self-talk and to concentrate on their stroke. Exhaling fully will help them relax and ensure they don’t hyperventilate or fatigue their muscles through lack of oxygen. The very practice of open water swimming will give them the experience to handle imperfect conditions not seen in their local pool.
Workouts: Keep workouts varied by including out and backs’, swimming for set time intervals or stroke counts, between landmarks, etc. For example:
Warm up for 5 minutes out, 5 minutes back
1 minute hard swimming, 1 minute easy, parallel to shore
Swim hard for 50 strokes, moderate for 10 strokes and repeat
Timed efforts working between piers, each repetition faster than the previous
Speed work: Add speed work as race day gets closer. All out sprints between buoys with rest, e.g. 100-200 yards 100% effort sprint with 1 minute rest to allow for good recovery. “Indian sprints” allow for practicing variable speeds as well as drafting. In the pool, vary fast and easy distances, e.g. pyramids 25m fast, 50m easy, 75m fast, 100m easy, and back down to 25m fast. Do 10 x 150m 50m fast, 50m moderate, 50m fast. For more distance do sets of 500m-1000m either building each 100m from easy to a fast finish, or alternating 100m moderate and fast efforts.
Aerobic, distance work: ironman athletes will swim longer distances than a sprint triathlete. Getting your athletes to swim overdistance e.g. 1.2 miles for the Olympic group, 1hr+ continuous for Ironman will give them belief they can conquer their race day swim. If you are restricted to the pool use the drills above to replicate conditions.
Sprint/Olympic: 6×5 minutes with the first and last 90 seconds hard effort before settling into a strong pace.
Half/Ironman: 6 x 10 minutes, with 3 minutes hard effort at the start and finish, with strong effort in between.
Pull sets: 10-15 minutes continuous pulling will ensure they are not overusing their legs in the open water.
5 x 200 strokes, swimming between landmarks with the goal of swimming further with the same stroke count each rep. Counting strokes will help distract less comfortable swimmers from conditions.
Swim 3x1km with an optional run of 5 minutes between each swim.
The above is a small sample of the possible sets you can employ for open water swim training. The basic message is that the workouts you provide in the pool translate to the open water. Our job as coaches is to ensure our athletes have the technical and mental skills to transfer their hard work into a successful race swim. This is where open water-specific drills, sets and simply training in the open water come into play.