Open Water Swimming: Essential Skills to become Stronger, Better, and Confident with Coach Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26
Whether you are an experienced swimmer or an “adult-onset” swimmer, when it comes to open water swimming, everyone needs to practice the same skills to be fully-prepared for racing in the variable conditions of open water.
Open water swimming requires a specialized set of physical and mental skills. Those only come with specific open water swim training. Even if you’re a strong pool swimmer, you will have greater success from practicing essential open-water skills.
“For a swimmer to succeed in an open water event, you need the tools to give you some amount of comfort and familiarity with the conditions you’ll encounter,” says Gerry Rodrigues, founder of Tower 26, co-founder of World Open Water Swimming Association, and considered by many to be “the guru” of open water swim coaching. “Put a person in a mass swim start with 200-1500 other people, and it’s absolute chaos. You want to be able to manage your event and not have the event manage you.”
Whether you hire a coach, join an open-water swim training group, or acquire the skills on your own, Coach Rodrigues knows you need to develop adaptation to the specific demands to be successful in an open water triathlon swim.
Open Water Swimming In Close Quarters
One such demand includes swimming very close, even bumping into, dozens of other athletes. Sometimes the racers start out too fast. Added challenges are sighting to navigate, a spiked heart rate when you exit the water and a taxing run to the transition or finish line.
“The only way to manage the challenges of open water swimming is to get yourself familiar with the conditions,” says Rodrigues. “Familiarity only occurs with frequency, and that’s the only way that fear can be removed. To go from fear to familiarity, you have to have a whole bunch of frequency. In a triathlon, the swim is 10% of the race, and often 90% of the anxiety.”
Even if you’re experienced and comfortable in the water, your ability in the pool doesn’t determine your ability to swim in open water, especially when conditions are rough with currents and choppy waves.
“There’s a common denominator for all swimmers new to open water,” says Rodrigues. “You need to experience the conditions you’ll encounter in an open water swim and get comfortable with them. Everybody goes out fast—how do you do that without being exposed to consequences if you haven’t trained for that? Open water swimmers need adaptation to cold water, diving, navigation, drafting properly, turning at buoys carefully in crowded water, and switching from being horizontal in the water to getting vertical and running.”
6 Essential Open Water Swimming Training Tips
Rodrigues outlined six things that swimmers of any ability or experience ought to do in preparation for an open water swim event:
- Train your open water event skills in the pool. Rodrigues advises athletes to build skills in the pool first. Then head to the open water to practice those skills in open water. Unless you are very experienced, don’t just head straight for the beach.
“Just practicing [by yourself] in open water is not the key,” says Rodriguez. “When most swimmers train in a lake or the ocean, they swim at 60% effort, with one friend. That doesn’t simulate the environment of race day.”
- Learn to sight. If you haven’t practiced sighting, you won’t swim the shortest distance on course. Often, you’ll lose time, expend extra energy, and increase your stress. Sighting–lifting your head and looking to keep yourself on track, is physically challenging.
“If you haven’t practiced, your upper neck and lower back will be taxed and sore,” says Rodrigues. “You’ll get on your bike, and it’ll be a miserable feeling for many hours to come.”
Proper sighting involves raising your head up to affirm course direction and breathing, according to Rodrigues. A right-sided breather should finish their left arm stroke. Then, as their left hand is coming out of the water and their arm is coming around, they lift their head so that their mouth clears the water just before the left hand re-enters. During the lift, which lasts less than a second, the swimmer’s eyes have spotted what they need to spot before their head turns right to take a breath.
For a right-handed breather, sighting is done as the left arm is making its circular return and in the air. Explained from the opposite side, still for the right-hand breather, as the right hand enters the water, you press down slightly for a slight lift, which is occurring as the left hand is exiting the water.
“Always capture your breath to the side, not the front,” says Rodrigues. “Your mouth should just break the water. Alligator eyes, as cute as they sound, don’t work. If only your eyes are out of the water, you can’t see ahead of you. In open water there are ripples.”
Rodrigues recommends practicing sighting in all your main swim sets, and sprinkling sighting throughout your swim workout.
- Dive in to start your set. Climb out when you’re done and RUN!
During race season for open water, Rodrigues says to start your sets by diving into the pool to mimic getting amped up at the beginning of a race, while continuing to incorporate sighting.
Here’s a great workout to practice: In a set of 10 x 200’s at 80% effort with 30 seconds rest between intervals, Rodrigues recommends swimming the first 50 fast. That’s because the pack in an open water swim typically goes out faster than in a pool race. Swim the first 50 at 90-95% effort, and site eight times. Swim the middle 100 at 80%, sighting one or two times per 25, then go harder on the last 50, around 85%-90%. Immediately upon touching the wall at the end of your 200, climb out of the pool and run in place for 10 sec to mimic running up the chute.
“You’re working the transition,” says Rodrigues, “and you’re doing it with your heart rate spiked, which is what happens in a race. You climb out when your heart rate is high, then you jog to spike it even further. You do this set, and you’ve done a three-minute swim 10 times with all the elements of open water, except the crowds. Within this 30-40 min set, you’ve knocked over a bunch of bowling pins that you previously didn’t have the experience to touch.”
- Simulate swimming with a crowd
Share a lane with four other people during open water swim. Swim in a crowded pool, ideally without lane lines. Rodrigues tells athletes to do as much race-specific swimming as they can fit into their training programs, including lots of 25s, with three to four people abreast.
“You need to get adapted to crowds,” says Rodrigues. “The phrase I use is, ‘we need to learn to become familiar with the discomfort of it.’ You’re not gonna like it, but you’ve got to get adapted to it, to have familiarity with the discomfort, because that’s what it’s going to feel like on race day. In an open water swim, sharing the water with hordes of people can be disheartening and uncomfortable–get used to it.”
- Practice Drafting
Do sets with a partner, swimming fewer intervals and more yardage, like 4 x 500’s. The first swimmer starts the set fast with the second swimmer pushing off at the first swimmer’s feet. Every 100 yards, the swimmers switch positions, so the first swimmer gets about two seconds rest. The second swimmer then takes the next hundred out fast with the first swimmer drafting. As with any open water swim training, site two to three times per lap if you’re leading, and one to two times per lap if drafting.
Rodrigues warns that swimmers who aren’t in the front of the pack should be wary of drafting in a race. If you’re a slower swimmer and you decide to draft, you may end up drafting off someone who has no idea what they’re doing.
“Develop your own ability to sight, and then you don’t need to rely on anybody else. If you’re going to navigate, do it yourself, don’t draft. If you’re relying on someone else, odds are you’re going to swim crooked. Don’t. Follow your own course unless you’re already a strong swimmer and you’re drafting off other strong swimmers. And even then make sure you’re always still sighting to stay on course.”
- Take your pool skills to open water
Only after you’ve developed open water skills in the pool does Rodrigues recommend you take those skills to true open water. Recruit 10 people who are roughly the same speed. Set up a five-minute open-water course, 100 m out, 50 m across, and 100 m back. All 10 swimmers should run into the water together to simulate a mass start. When you exit the water, run back to the start point. Repeat the exercise for 30-40 total minutes swimming.
“Now we have race-specific ingredients, a bunch of people caught in close quarters at a similar speed,” says Rodrigues.
Rodrigues tells swimmers to repeat this drill on at least a dozen different days to be exposed to different wind and water conditions.
“That’s how you optimize your opportunity,” says Rodrigues. “Specificity. This event has specific demands. You need to be practiced in additional skills to just pool swimming. The guys who are fastest in the pool don’t win in open water. The swimmers who are familiar with the specific conditions and the challenges of open, the swimmer who can sight, navigate and who have takeout speed will beat the ‘fast’ guys from the pool.”
To see what an ocean swim and transition looks like, check out this “beach workout” video from Coach Gerry’s Tower 26:
Want an efficient and powerful way to integrate the Vasa SwimErg with open water training?
Coach Eric Neilsen says, “If you have a Vasa SwimErg on the pool deck, that’s the best-case scenario. It provides profound tactile feedback that can be immediately translated to the pool. The SwimErg really helps athletes who are challenged by breathing or stroke-rate because you can breathe and keep your body in a straight line. Breathing inherently creates an imbalance. Swimming on the Vasa Swim Erg is like being in the water while using a front-mount snorkel. It helps you isolate and engage your bigger back and lat muscles. You can re-create the clean bodyline used on the SwimErg when you get into the water.”
Check out this video for ideas on integrating training on land with key progressions and drills when swimming in the pool or open water.
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