3 Tips for Simulating Open Water Swimming in the Pool

3 Tips for Simulating Open Water Swimming in the Pool

If you’re daunted by open water swimming, here are three effective drills to help you acclimate to race-day conditions.

Open Water Swimming (OWS) can be a challenge for beginner triathletes due to dynamic conditions, such as not being able to see the bottom or even your hand in front of your face, or harsh wind that causes an absurd amount of chop to swim through. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the conditions of an OWS before your race, as you will likely experience a lot of thrashing and physical contact with other swimmers. You can best prepare for this by simulating an open water experience in the pool. Here are three pool drills you can use in your weekly practice that can easily be integrated into your warm-up or main set. 

1. Swim with Your Eyes Closed 

This will help your general OWS skills and will get you used to swimming in total darkness. This can also help you if you tend to drift but may not realize it. While swimming with your eyes closed, pay attention if you drift and, if so, in which direction. If you are prone to drifting, this could mean you have an uneven stroke or kick. Work on this in training so that you’re not constantly correcting your direction in open water, which obviously takes unnecessary effort and costs time. You can check to see if your drift is caused by your stroke or kick by swimming with a pull buoy. Do your arms cross your midline? Do you tend to scissor kick when you breathe? These are possible causes for drifting that can be corrected by intentional practice.

2. Practice Sighting  

Getting comfortable with sighting is vital in OWS. You need to get efficient at sighting off of different objects, angles, and directions, even objects that are hard to see. 

Tarzan Drill

This is a great drill to help you get comfortable with sighting. The Tarzan drill is the same thing as the head-up swim drill or the water polo swim drill. I wouldn’t recommend more than 100-200 yards total of this drill at first as it’s quite demanding. 

In an open water setting over a long swim, you will be sighting quite frequently and you will need the physical strength to do so. Every time you sight your hips will sink, adding more resistance to your swim. Tarzan drills strengthen the trapezius muscles, which is important for frequent sighting in open water, but since it is a very demanding drill, it should only be incorporated in short increments of 25 yards. Consider these important tips before you try this drill. 

  • Keep your head above the water and don’t turn your head side to side when Tarzan swimming.
  • Kick a little faster than normal to keep your hips elevated or your hips will really sink. 
  • Try to keep your normal rotation as you go through this drill.  

This drill will also help you with your stroke entry as you will have a better idea of where and how your hands tend to enter the water. In addition to the Tarzan drill, you can practice sighting on various objects around the pool — things like your friend’s water bottle in the lane next to you, the lifeguard, or the old guy by the hot tub in the Speedo. Whatever works. In addition, practice swimming with your goggles full of water. You never know when you will have a water leak in your goggles. It may happen on race day when you get your goggles kicked in by the swimmer in front of you.

3. Get Comfortable with Physical Contact

In a triathlon, the OWS is the most daunting part for triathletes as there is a lot of physical contact. The fact is some triathletes do not swim gently or kindly, whether they mean to or not. All you can do is be as prepared as you can for these situations by working to be comfortable and relaxed with physical contact. 

If you have a friend swimming with you, have him or her elbow you and touch your feet. This will help you get ‘comfortable’ with physical contact while you’re swimming. Most triathletes tend to aggressively kick harder when they feel someone touching their feet — this is not what you want to do. Relaxed swimming is fast swimming. Kicking harder is not going to help you get a competitor off your feet, and it’s not going to get you out of the water any faster. 

There’s no substitute for practicing in an open body of water in order to acclimate yourself to open water swimming. However, these pool drills can help you simulate open water swimming conditions so that you are better prepared for race day.

William Ritter

Ritter, from Tyler Texas, is the Head Coach at Fly Tri Racing. He is a TrainingPeaks Level 2, Ironman U, USA Cycling, and USA Track and Field Level 2 Endurance Certified Coach and USATF Cross Country Specialist. He specializes in coaching triathletes and runners of all abilities. Ritter’s coaching is detailed and based on the individual athlete blending the art and science of coaching. To learn more about Ritter and personal coaching visit www.flytriracing.com.