Open Water Swim Training in a Pool

Swimmers ready to start an Ironman
May 24, 2013

Mike Ricci


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Off-season training is over and your first race of the season is coming up. How are you going to get ready? If you are like most of the country, you live in an area that doesn’t provide open water swim opportunities until the summer months.

In order to prepare, you’ll need to create an environment that’s similar to race day and gather a group of your training buddies. You’ll need a fairly good-sized group. Twenty or more athletes would be great, but you can accomplish quite a lot with a group of even 10. Have everyone bring wetsuits, thermal caps and whatever else they would wear on race day. The more you prepare like it’s race day the better you will do on race day!

The next thing you’ll need is a pool and you should pull several of the lane lines out. Have everyone get in their normal ‘lanes’ and swim a solid warm up of about 500 yards. Then have your group swim 10 x 50 yard repeats with short rest. Swimming in the pool without lane lines should cause some rougher than normal water and your athletes will get familiar with what race day condition will be like. If you have a small group move everyone into one side of the pool to create a rougher swim.

Next, you should secure a race buoy or kids bouncy ball ( and tie it off to a rope and secure it to a diving brick. If you reach out to a local race director he might be willing to loan you a swim buoy for a few hours. Anchor the buoy or ball somewhere at the far end of the pool. I like to anchor the ball toward the left corner of the pool and have the group start from the right hand corner of the group. I usually anchor the buoy with a diving brick and some rope.

Next, arrange your group in one area of the pool with the faster swimmers in the back and the medium paced swimmers toward the front. On the whistle have everyone swim to the buoy, turn around the buoy and return. Once everyone gets back to the start point, ask them how they felt getting swum over, punched kicked and knocked around. Most will tell you they didn’t like it. The reason for doing this drill is so that they understand what they are up against on race day. Next up, pair swimmers of similar ability and have them swim one behind the other, with the purpose of getting them to learn to draft. After that drill, have the same pairs swim, but this time let the lead swimmer be the drafter and vice versa. One more key drill I like to use is to have the swimmers pair up and have the drafting swimmer, close their eyes and only feel for the water – no sighting whatsoever. Once again, have the swimmers trade places so that each gets to be the drafter.

Lastly, I would put everyone in close quarters again and have them practice a few starts around the buoy and back. Take as much time as you can to allow for practicing starting positions, ‘get out speed’, and turns around the buoy. Many new swimmers will want to go wide around the buoy, while faster swimmers will hit the turn fast. Have people think about what’s important to their race success; whether it be swimming wide around the buoy or tight with a sharp turn. As we all know swimming an extra 100 yards in an ironman race, in order to avoid the melee around the turn buoys will not affect the outcome of a twelve to seventeen hour race.
A quick recap of the article:
1. Arrange a group of swimmers with all their race day swim gear: wetsuits, caps, goggles, booties, etc.
2. Use a pool that you can pull the lanes out of.
3. Use a good warm up that will make the water a bit rough, giving swimmers some idea of what open water swimming is like.
4. Set up a buoy or some type of flotation device in the far end of the pool that should be used like a turn buoy.
5. Let your swimmers practice mass starts.
6. Have your swimmers practice drafting; one time with eyes open and another time with their eyes closed in order to get a feel for the person in front of them.
7. Practice swim exits and use a handicap ramp if possible and work on removing the wetsuit with timely fashion.
8. Don’t be afraid to try these same drills in the open water once a venue is available for you.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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