Open Water Swim Training For Recreational Swimmers & Triathletes
Each year, the number of people participating in open water swims and triathlons continues to grow significantly. As more of us embrace new, more adventurous challenges, many of us are getting wet well beyond the confines of the concrete tank with focused open water swim training techniques.
In preparation for open water challenges, it makes sense to move some or most of your training from the pool to open water as your chosen event nears. It’s common knowledge that a sound training program includes training in the conditions in which you’ll be racing.
Many athletes find more success by moving some of their training onto dryland. Just as cyclists rely on indoor trainers, runners use treadmills, and rowers use rowing machines, indoor swim training using a swim-specific trainer is a proven effective option used by amateurs and Olympian alike for many years. Quality indoor swim training provides extra benefits for those who want to be stronger, safer, have greater enjoyment in their open water swimming. Some even use it to seek a podium moment—in a local one- or two-mile open water race or triathlon.
Vasa SwimErgs, Swim Trainers, and Swim Benches (widely used for over 25 years) all offer highly-targeted training opportunities for swimmers and triathletes in less time than it takes to get to the pool or your open water swimming venue. These tools—and the resources housed on this website—can help you revolutionize your training and break into a new level of enjoyment and performance in open water.
It’s worked for many of the open water swimmers and triathletes Eric Neilsen has coached over the years, both in-person and remotely. Lately, that remote capability is more important than ever, as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every problem comes with an ability to use our creativity to solve it,” Neilsen says. “There are so many ways you can use the machines,” and the current pandemic requires some creativity to cope with for those open water swimmers and triathletes who want to maintain fitness to be ready when we can get back to competition.
Neilsen says he’s been using FaceTime and Zoom to connect with clients, and while it’s great if the client also has access to a Vasa product, even if that’s not the case, there’s still value for Neilsen in demonstrating the technique on his machine that the client can then replicate with stretch cords on their end. “If they can see me and hear me, and then I write it down for them, there’s more chance for retention.” Reinforcing good technique also helps ensure that exercises and workouts will be executed correctly with safe form, he says.
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Even before the pandemic started, Neilsen says he had been working with a young client in the UK. They use Zoom and work out on their respective Vasa products together, “and we just knock it out. You can get a lot of focused instruction done in a very short amount of time.” Being able to check-in like that has been “huge,” he says and has enabled him to reach more clients who live too far away (for example Algeria, Switzerland, and Turkey) to meet with him in person at home in Fort Collins, Colorado.
For Masters athletes, some of whom are at the other end of the age spectrum and concerned about forced time out of the water might affect their ability to be competitive when open water events and triathlons are permitted to occur again, Neilsen has a solution. He says the addition of a Vasa training tool for dryland workouts along with a few other exercises, including swim cords can be very helpful. “I’ve had blocks of time over the past 30 years using the Vasa products when I’ve been out of the water. You get back in the water and you quickly get your feel back. You feel glued together and connected and strong.”
Even when we can freely go to the pool or open water for workouts again, having access to a Vasa can free up more time in your schedule. “When I raced in Kona, I had a SwimErg. I was living 20 minutes from the ocean, but working out on the Erg, I could knock out my workout and save 40 minutes [of travel time] in my day,” Neilsen says. For busy open water swimmers and triathletes who are trying to train three sports at once while juggling everything else, this sort of time savings can make all the difference between squeezing in a workout and having to skip it.
And for the data geeks out there, a Vasa SwimErg with an ANT+ Power Meter can provide a wealth of data about every stroke you take. Jack Fabian, an 8-time USA Swimming National Team Open Water Coach, Masters swimmer, and triathlete based in Keene, New Hampshire, says that the data output from the Vasa ANT+ power meter allows users to get real-time feedback on power and stroke rate. He likes to download the workout data for review and analysis later. The Power Meter transmits workout date into TrainerRoad, Garmin devices, and other popular analysis systems to create custom workouts that pinpoint certain skill sets or work different energy systems.
“It’s actually quite cool,” he says, being able to see how an athlete’s power output degrades over the course of a set. Being able to see where and when your strength starts to slip can help you adjust your training program to shore up weaker elements and help you get a little smarter about your training.
“A lot of times we just try to train more rather than better,” Fabian says. But with real data coming out of each workout, you can learn and adjust for more efficient workouts. He says his daughter Eva Fabian, a world champion swimmer who now trains in Israel in hopes of competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games, has developed a useful analogy for training. “Her analogy is that training is a medical dose,” Fabian says. “You want to find out the optimal dose. But just because a certain dosage works doesn’t mean you throw in twice that dose. You can have some unintended effects of that over-medication. This data helps us figure out that optimal dose in the water so that we might get a better effect and not overwhelm ourselves with the medication.”
Working Smarter At Home
At this moment when many of us are being ordered to stay at home as much as possible, logging some solid workouts with a Vasa Trainer Pro or SwimErg or adapting such a workout to stretch cords at home can keep boredom at bay and help you maintain fitness while you’re unable to get to the pool or your local open water venue. Neilsen offers some tips and suggestions for making your time on your Vasa Swim Trainer or SwimErg more impactful for open water events, races, and triathlons when we can get back out there.
Mix up your pull patterns. Although many swimmers automatically default to freestyle in open water and on a Vasa Trainer Pro or SwimErg, that’s not the only option. Neilsen recommends alternating between freestyle and butterfly arm pulls to work different muscles and improve power and strength. And, you can even flip over and enjoy some backstroke and double-arm backstroke, too. “It opens up a whole new kind of workout,” he says. Particularly for athletes experiencing some lower back challenges, rolling over and working some double arm backstroke can help open up the chest and release the back muscles while providing a welcome change of scenery.
Beef up the power balance. Most of us have a weaker side, and in open water, that can translate to pulling off course without realizing that you’re drifting to the left or right. Using the Power Meter on the Vasa SwimErg, you can see which side is generating more power to help guide you in strengthening that weaker side. The power imbalance from Right to Left side becomes glaringly apparent when fatigue sets in. “That’s a nice little tool,” Neilsen says that translates into open water swimmers swimming in a straighter line with sighting less frequently.
Focus on power. Neilsen suggests a good workout. Get a baseline reading on the SwimErg for how many watts you can generate when swimming comfortably. Then, push your effort over a short period of time—30 seconds or a minute, for example—to see how many watts you can generate while keeping your stroke rate the same to amp up the power you’re generating. “See what you can sustain,” he says. Over time, these sorts of test sets can help you see how you’ve improved and built strength while using the erg. They can also highlight where athletes start slipping water due to fatigue and efficient technique begins to falter, Neilsen says.
Don’t forget the technique. Lastly, Neilsen recommends listening to your body to avoid injury when working out on the SwimErg or any swim bench or when using swim cords. “I think people need to be reminded right now not to be so worried about how much you do. Just try to do it right. You want to build good habits,” so when you’re tired, take a break. When you start again, “refocus on the mechanics.”
About The Author: Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. She’s also a lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming and calls greater Boston home.