Simulating Open Water Swimming in the Pool

a triathlete with a wetsuit on
August 27, 2018

Mike Ricci


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According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), 123 million American live in counties that have a coastline. Yet while Hawaii, Florida, and California might have waters you can jump into on a semi regular basis, Oregon and Alaska tend to stick a bit chillier at 58 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the height of summer heat. Even Lake Michigan near Chicago is chilly from June to September, something I can vouch for personally; and as a former swimmer who likes her water cold, that’s saying something. Even if you are to brave the temps, boats are to swimmers what cars are to cyclists. It makes trying to get any open water swim practice a frustrating and possibly panic inducing dilemma, if you’re not lucky enough to live in an area that promotes a safe place to swim.


What’s a determined triathlete in training to do when open water isn’t an option to workout in? A pool may not be the ideal situation, but all the skills you need to be confident in the open water can be practiced in this contained area. In working almost a decade with the University of Colorado Triathlon team whose regional championships are in March and national championships in April (long before our local open water options are viable), I’ve collected a few practice moves to help get those skills honed when the actual thing is not available.

Things to do when you have a lane to yourself: 
1. Practice sighting: set up a kick board at the end of each lane and work every third 25 as sighting length. Work on crocodile eyes that peer just above the surface, keeping your body long and horizontal. If possible, set the board a few feet off the end of the pool to make it more difficult. BONUS: close your eyes except when you look up to sight! Please only do this at slower speeds and when you are the only person in the lane. If you have a coach on deck, it might be possible to request the boards be moved every so often to simulate the movement you and the buoy will have in open water. 

2. Do no wall turns: open water has no walls, so changing direction without that extra propulsion is key! I find these work best in a descending set of 50’s or 100’s (8x100 descend 1-4, 5-8 or 12x50 descend in 3’s) and turn around at the T (about 3 feet from the wall). BONUS: Do a corkscrew turn at the T to simulate getting around the buoy.

3. Deep water starts: float on your stomach away from the way (about the flags) and then sprint to the other end. If you can float without moving forward, even better, as it really forces you to learn how to drive off the start in a deep water start.

Things to do when you have a group:
1. Practice chase starts: in groups of two, have one pair float out to about the flags and have another ready to start on the wall. On a signal (either within the group or from a coach on deck), sprint to the other end. Switch flag starts and wall starts, and which side you swim on. These can really only be done in single length swims, so please don’t attempt and make them into 50’s (or 100’s in LCM). BONUS: Swim 3 or more abreast and add in a third pack between the wall and the flags. You’ll learn to be tactful in getting around people, getting swum over (when doing with fellow swimmers, as you would in a race, be controlled!) and having lots of thrashing and splashing around you as you swim.

2. Work pace lines: similar to pace lines in cycling, you’ll swim in a line, drafting from the person in front and changing out at a determined interval. With my collegiate athletes, I find this is a good way to get in longer swims (400’s and up) in crowded conditions and avoid distracted swimming. Chat with the local pool to see if there’s a way to have time with the lanes out and no open swim swimmers: I’m a firm believer that you can leave a lot of opportunities on the table by simply not asking questions. The worst they can possibly say is no! While there will likely be a fee involved, get a group together to practice in a no lanes situation and split the costs. With a decent sized group, you can practice swimming with 90 and 180 degree turns and wide mass starts. Be sure to include sighting with this! Make sure you check out your athlete guide for any open water swim practices that are available at your race venue.

While only getting a few hundred yards in there won’t supplant the thousands of yards needed to be well prepared for a triathlon with an open water swim, that familiarity coupled with use of the practices above will help immensely! Good luck and good swims!

Coach Leigh Dodd is a USA Triathlon Certified coach with a specialty in swimming and coaching younger athletes. She proudly helped to coach the CU Tri Team to seven national titles and has qualified for the USAT World Team. 

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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