Open Water Swimming in a Pool

Triathlons happen in open water.  Well, most do, anyway.  The problem is that many of us don’t do much open water swim training.  Yet, literally every triathlon website, magazine, or coach will tell you that in order to be good at actually swimming in open water, you must practice doing so.  The result is a conundrum.  If you don’t have access to open water, how do you train for it?

Here’s my situation:  I live in Northeast Florida.  There’s not a shortage of open water nearby;  it’s called the ocean.  Literally, the Atlantic Ocean is 15 minutes from my house.  But….I am not a fan of ocean swimming.  I don’t like swimming in the chop and waves that are there.  I often don’t have anyone to go with me – or when there are organized ocean swims they just don’t fit my schedule.  And frankly, I’m a little nervous about some of the predators that live there (a/k/a:  SHARKS).  There are also a fair number of ponds and small lakes around here – but they are generally rainwater runoff retention ponds….hence only slightly polluted and nasty. Of course, Jacksonville boasts a fairly big river within the city limits too.  The river literally is less than five minutes from my house.  I’m not about to go swimming in it, though.  It’s dark, full of weird currents, and drunk rednecks on boats.   Again, just as in with the ocean, predators abound in the river (this time, more reptilian than shark-ish, but alligators they can still take an arm off).  Bottom line here is that this Floridian will only swim in open water when he’s part of an organized triathlon with a bunch of other potential prey triathletes.

So how can I train for open water (and how can you if you’re not predisposed to training in open water)? 

The cool thing is that you can actually do this in a couple of ways:

If you swim as part of a master’s group, ask the coach to once a week (or month, or whatever) remove all the lane lines.  Then, you can practice swimming the perimeter of the pool.  The key to success here is that when you make a turn to not push-off the wall.  This way you practice turning (as if going around a buoy) and you don’t have the assistance you get from pushing off the wall.  To make this even more realistic, you (or your master’s coach) can make de-facto buoys with a gallon bucket, a pull buoy, and string.  Tie the buoy to the bucket with enough string to allow the buoy to float, then sink the bucket where you want to put it.  You can figure out the total yardage fairly easily, too.  Junior olympic pools (like you’d find in many communities, the YMCA, or some gyms) are 25 yards long, with 8 lanes.  According to USA Swimming, the “normal” dimensions for a pool of this size is 25 yards by 22 yards.  So, a full lap around the perimeter is roughly 94 yards – give or take a little.  If you swim in a long-course pool, the dimensions are 50 meters long by 25 yards wide (almost 23 meters) – so the perimeter is roughly 146 meters.  The distance will add up quickly.  Additionally, if you do this workout with a group, it really approximates what it’s like to swim in a triathlon – lots of bumping, swimming over, being swum over, etc.

If you can’t convince your master’s coach to remove the lane lines, or otherwise find yourself in a situation where it just isn’t practical to remove the lane lines, never fear…you can still practice open water swimming in a pool.  Here’s how (courtesy of uber-triathlete Sara McLarty):  Just don’t push-off the wall.  For example, your training plan might say that you need to do a 500 yard swim with no walls.  What that means is that you swim until the black “T” on the bottom of the pool, then turn around and start swimming the other way.  For the record, this is not as easy to do as it sounds.  Think about it…you’re cruising along, and suddenly have to stop all your forward momentum, turn around, and then start going again in the other direction.  This process is likely easier if you can do a flip turn, but if you are like the vast majority of triathletes and only do open turns, this process is tough.  Then, the sheer act of getting back up to speed is brutal.  The good thing, though, is that you can practice your what it takes to surge at the start.

As we know, most triathlons happen in open water – so you’ve got to practice swimming as if you’re in open water.  Hopefully these tips will help if you need to practice open water, but either don’t have open water available to you, or just otherwise don’t want to swim in open water.


2 thoughts on “Open Water Swimming in a Pool

  1. Came close to simulating open water swimming today. 8 people crammed into two lanes at the pool with wall on one side and lane barrier on the other. Lots of choppy water and bumping going on.

  2. I train up north in cold Michigan. In summer we have a multitude of gorgeous lakes in which to train, but unfortunately there are only about 3.5 months of outdoor swimming weather. That makes it necessary to swim indoors for the rest of the year. It isn’t ideal but if you can find the right gym with a good pool and daily lap swim sessions, you can make the best of it. Discipline is the most important factor, like stated above, make sure not to kick off the walls every time you turn around. I try to just pivot around 180 Deg while continually kicking my legs and that usually works well. My heart rate stays the same throughout the maneuver.

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