Open Water Swim Training Thoughts and Preparation

With swimming pools closed and the lakes starting to warm up, triathletes and swimmers from across the country are flocking to their favourite open water locales. I too was digging out my wet suit this morning for a planned swim at the very cold mountain fed but engine free lake near my house. BRRR, I am just a little cold thinking about it but moreso, I am excited. My favorite part of swimming in open water is the scenery and those comfortable rhythms you can find in the lake without walls or pace clocks. 

In this article I will explore some of the differences between open water and pool swimming and what you need to do mentally and physically to prepare yourself. 

Preparation should be, by far, the largest portion of time dedicated to open water swim training, assuming you are equally as comfortable in the lake as you are in the pool. When you show up to the lake for a swim what have you done to prepare? 

Have you planned with a friend, checked the weather, remembered your swimming and your safety gear, found parking before finally getting  to the shore and hopping into the water for that all  important “open water’ swim. When the pools are open this might be a once every two week occurrence or maybe even once a season before the big race. However, now that athletes are moving towards an exclusive open water only training program with no pool swims we do need to optimize preparation. 

    1. Have a workout in mind and ideally write it down. Swimming straight for 2,3 or 4 KM is great when it’s infrequent but if you are doing that 3 or 4 times a week now, does it benefit you as much as the open water training could? Try to think about incorporating repeats, speed and power, technical sets along with the distance training that open water is so ideal for. 
    2. Warm Up. This is part of having a workout in mind, but something that is missing from most open water swims. I encourage my athletes to do a dryland warm up because more often than not that is what you are going to be dealing with on race day. 
    3. Plan your Course. When planning your workout think about the ‘course you will be swimming’. Not only does this help with sighting, distances, pacing but allows you to plan for fluid breaks, equipment changes and entries/exits. 
    4. Vary the Main Set. Swimming straight has its place and time but not all of the mainsets you do should be long and continuous swimming, changes of pace and speed/intensities are very important.
    5. Don’t forget to practice open water skills.  Beach entries and exits, sighting, pacing, drafting, pack swimming, fixing your goggles, swimming into currents/waves/sun/wind and buoy turns. These are part of the race day experiences of open water events but not all open water practices have a natural place for these, they need to be planned and practiced. 
    6. Cool Downs. When your average triathlete finishes their swim they race to the beach, towel off and head to the car to warm up. I have done that exact thing after almost every one of my open water swims. It's a race to get to Starbucks to get that hot Latte, however we are missing valuable opportunities to improve recovery, and flexibility. In a pool environment I have my athletes run through stretches, core exercises and some post swimming snacks to encourage recovery. 

As you may well know, the biggest challenge for open water training is to get away from the idea of “get out and enjoy the scenery” and instead  come to the lake prepared to work.  Not just work, work in a focused manner. This lack of pools could be a great opportunity to improve your open water swimming but you need to approach it in a well thought out manner. If you need some help or ideas on this feel free to check out our open water workout plan or email us at