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United States Masters Swimming

  Open Water Training in a Pool

Printed with permission from:

Pool’s Edge Column- Swimming World Magazine-July 2007

By: Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen Aquatic Edge, Inc.

Summer is here! For many of us, that means it's time to do some open water racing. While some of you can train in a nearby lake, bay or ocean, most swimmers must settle for the pool.

Here are six suggestions that can help you prepare for an open water race while training in a pool.

Go the Distance: If your event is 1-mile or less, you are probably doing enough yardage to complete the swim. If the race is longer (3k, 5k, 5 miles or more), get ready to add some extra mileage to your training program.

To boost yardage, build endurance and most of all, gain confidence in your ability to complete the swim, try incorporating any of the following suggestions:
  • Add an extra swim workout to your week
  • Swim longer at each session (warm up and cool down for once)
  • Increase the length and distance of your aerobic-based (EN-1) sets
  • Frequently do race distance broken swims with short rest. For example: Broken 3k swim: 3 x 1000 or 1500/1000/500 or 6 x 500 Broken 5k swim: 2 x 1500 + 2 x 1000 or 2000/1500/1000/500
  • Find a training partner with a similar goal to share your pain!
Pacing: Open water races often start out fast, then settle into a more manageable pace. To train for this uncomfortable situation, try this set:

5 x 400 with 1-2 minutes rest done like this: 100 super FAST followed by a 300 active recovery

The idea is to go out hard then use the active recovery (not slow swimming) to gradually settle into your desired pace.

Drafting: Drafting is the secret weapon of open water swimmers. However, there are rules of etiquette that must be followed…DO NOT touch the toes of the person you are drafting!

Practice drafting in the pool by doing PACELINE swims. The goal is to get comfortable drafting others and to learn not to touch toes. It's also a lot of fun.
  • Gather at least three people in a lane, preferably of similar speed
  • Determine the distance (500 on up)
  • Decide on how long the lead person will sprint (25 or 50)
  • The lead person takes off with everyone following at 1-2 second interval
  • After the sprint, the lead person pulls over, rests and allows the 2nd person to take the lead and the paceline to pass.
  • Leader joins the end of the paceline and drafts until it is time to sprint again
  • Score points: every time you touch someone's toes, you get a point
  • Person with the fewest points wins!!
Sighting: Many swimmers sight too often, lift their head too high and/or sight for too long. All of these will upset body balance and will slow you down due to extra drag.

To effectively sight, simply lift your head, keep your nose and mouth in the water, take a quick "snapshot" of your destination, then turn your head and get a breath. Repeat up to three times. If you didn't see the target, try again in 20 strokes. Practice this technique in the pool by sighting the end of your lane every 4th length of warm up.

During the race, use your peripheral vision to sight. Underwater, glance left and right looking for other swimmers. If you are all alone, you may have drifted off course and need to stop, reorient yourself or ask for guidance.

Contact Swimming: Open water racing can be very challenging, but not just because of adverse water or weather conditions. With hundreds of bodies swimming in every direction, it can get really ROUGH out there.

To prepare yourself for what might lie ahead, try "Contact Swimming." This drill is NOT intended to teach you how to be a jerk in the water, rather, its great way to learn how to deal with the situation if it occurs (i.e. don't panic).
  • Pile a group of friends/teammates into one lane
  • Before you begin, have everyone apologize to each other (a MUST!)
  • Designate one or two people to be the "jerk"
  • Leave the wall at the same time and swim one length
  • The jerk(s) pulls, shoves, and swims over the other swimmers
  • Everyone has a chance at being the "jerk"
Swim with ALOHA:In Hawaii, we try to swim in the spirit of ALOHA. Respect the water, your fellow competitors and give thanks for the opportunity to participate in open water events with your swimming friends and family. After all, it's about having fun and enjoying the sport; it's not about winning.

BIO: Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen completed her first open water race at the age of 8 where she came in dead last. She is now an open water champion setting course records and placing first in swims all over Hawaii and Southern California and has set over 160 Masters World pool records to date. Karlyn and her husband, Eric Neilsen, own Aquatic Edge Inc and host open water swim camps and clinics year-round on the Big Island of Hawaii.