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How to Practice Open Water Swimming in the Pool

BY Dave Sheanin

Open water swimming is a source of anxiety for many athletes. Practicing these skills in the pool will help prepare you for the open water and make you a faster, more relaxed swimmer.

For the majority of all triathlons you will be swimming in open water. This is typically a source of anxiety and fear for many athletes as training for the open water is often limited. While not perfect, it is possible to prepare for race day in a pool? Here are some drills and games that you can do in the pool to be prepared.


The first, and perhaps most obvious, thing you can do in the pool is to practice sighting. In a short course pool (25 yards or meters) pick your head up twice each lap and sight on something at the end of the pool. In a long course pool, sight at least five times per lap.

What’s most important here is that you don’t just go through the motions. Be sure you actually focus on what it is that you’re looking for. You can even have a lane mate at the end holding up fingers for you to read.

Swimming Straight

How often should you sight? Well, that depends on how straight you swim. When you’re in the pool, going fast is what gets you to the next wall more quickly. In open water, speed is not enough. It’s your velocity plus your trajectory that determine how quickly you get into T1. In a lane by yourself, push off the wall and swim with your eyes closed. Can you make it to the other end without hitting the laneline? (Make sure you know your stroke count so you can open your eyes before you get to the wall if you happen to make it all the way down the lane!) If not, how far can you go?

If you start in the middle of the lane and drift to one side by the other end, that’s not too bad, but you’re still off course about a meter over a length of 25 meters. If you’re consistent, that would work out to about 20 meters off course every 500 and then double that because you’ll have to swim back onto the course. So that might cost you 30 to 60 seconds every 500 meters. But what if you hit the lane line after only a few strokes? You might be costing yourself several minutes over 500 meters. The solution is sighting. If you can swim four strokes before veering off course, you should be sighting every four strokes. If you stay on course through 10 strokes, sight every 10.

Now put these two elements together. Swim with your eyes closed but open your eyes to sight every 4, 6, 10 strokes. Now can you make it down the lane in a straight line? You’re onto something important! Sighting may slow you down a bit, but it’ll keep you in a straight line—that makes for a faster swim split.

Practice Turning

If your pool has a dive area that’s not in use or if lane lines are out of the pool, practice swimming in rectangles around the edges of the pool. Stay a meter or two away from the wall and make 90 degree turns at the corners. You can even have a friend tread water and act like a buoy for you to go around. Want to make this even more like race conditions? Swim with a group of friends. Don’t forget to turn around and go the other way so you get practice with both right and left turns. And, of course, incorporate your sighting practice here too.

Use Your Wetsuit

For most wetsuit brands, it’s perfectly fine to swim in a pool in your wetsuit on occasion. Be sure to do a thorough job of rinsing it inside and out with clear water after you wear it in a chlorinated pool. For many swimmers, wetsuits feel constricting. This is necessary for them to provide warmth and buoyancy, but it can be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable until you get used to it. Every few weeks, include a wetsuit set. It’s best to start your workout in the wetsuit (because they’re pretty hard to put on when you’re wet) and do a longer, continuous swim of 500 or 1,000 yards. Bonus points if you hit it hard from the start without much (or even any) warmup. This way you can kill two birds with one stone—wetsuit practice plus getting more comfortable with the breathless discomfort that often happens at the start of a race.

Skip the Walls

Swim some sets where you turn just before the walls—don’t push off the walls. You’ll lose all momentum and then have to build it up again each lap. This is also the perfect practice to practice deep water starts.

Swim With Friends

Invite two or three other swimmers into your lane and sprint out some hard 25’s with everyone lined up side by side. Rotate through positions. If you’re on an end, you’ll want to breathe to the outsides. While I’m not a fan of the traditional bilateral (every three strokes) pattern, you need to be able to breathe to either side in order to get air in traffic. What about when you’re in the middle? That’s a tough spot so you’ll need to figure out how to make a little space in order to breathe. There’s nothing like practicing in a controlled environment to hone your skills.

As long as your friends are in your lane with you, practice drafting. A great set is to swim a longer distance (400 or more yards) “Michigan style.” This is a circle swim where each swimmer leads for a 25 or 50 (decide on this in advance). The rest of the line swims one right behind the other. It’s okay to tap feet in this drill but your goal is to swim just behind the feet of the swimmer in front of you without making contact. At the end of each pull, the lead swimmer stops at the wall to the right of the lane while the rest of the line swims by. Then the leader hops on at the back of the line. 

While none of these drills are a perfect substitute for open water, practicing in the pool will go a long way toward being ready for race day! One last thought—don’t wait until the week before the race to incorporate these ideas into your workouts. These ideas should be a part of your regular training through the offseason and into your serious builds!

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About Dave Sheanin

Dave Sheanin coaches with D3 Multisport and the national champion University of Colorado Triathlon team. He doesn’t mind training in the pool, but what he really loves is watching the sun rise from the middle of Boulder Reservoir on summer mornings.

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