Very few of us are going to be spending winter and early spring in the South Pacific, or even South Florida where the only frozen water is ice in the drinks, yet if your 2017 race venues include a beach and waves now is the time to work on the skills that will get you through the water with speed and ease.
Open water swimming is booming according to OpenWaterSource.com with an estimated new event added somewhere in the world every day, and now some of the largest participation sport events in the world are open water swims like the Midmar Mile in South Africa. With the continued boom in triathlon participation whether triathletes claim the title or not, they are open water swimmers. As more athletes and coaches look at competing beyond the lane lines, the challenge is often not a lack of pool time, but rather the need for ongoing and easy access to safe open water venues or training methods where specific skills like sighting, drafting and pack racing can be learned and mastered. Today Pool Open Water (POW) is the best thing to hit swim practice since circle swimming. The concept is just as simple: Remove the lane lines; drop in some buoys and stop following the black line.
POW set-ups are limitless, but typically all the lane lines are removed and buoys are placed at each corner roughly three to five yards from each side. There are inexpensive 24” neon buoys available, but even large bright balloons will work. Anchors need to be heavy enough to keep the marker in place as packs swim past, and most importantly anchors need to be chosen and placed on the bottom so they don’t scratch or crack the pool. Excellent POW anchors can be made using weight filled PVC pipe, and other commonly used items are plastic coated 8-pound mushroom anchors or the pellet weight bags used by scuba divers. Unless you are swimming in a wave pool, the anchor lines just need to match the depth of the water where the buoy is placed. If you are practicing at a facility where removing lane lines burns up valuable practice time this might even be a way to grab extra minutes of quality workout time while letting that water-aerobics class hit the water the minute the Masters hour chimes.
Structuring a POW workouts is not much different than structuring a normal practice. In place of yardage numbers, use loops, or if you want even more intensity focus on the straights between markers. Just as lane mates are grouped by ability, POW groups are organized the same way. In a 25-meter pool, one loop will typically be about 60 meters so passing will occur, but passing smoothly and quickly is just another skill acquired for race day in the real open water. To keep effort and open water specificity high, start and end each set in the deep-end so time standing on the bottom or holding the wall is minimized. The distances for sets in POW really depend on the coach. Regardless of the chosen set, there is always the extra training gains of sighting, drafting and pack swimming. Try pace lines with three swimmers switching off after each loop, or solo breakaways with a 10 second head start on a pack of three. The limitations are only determined by the imagination, and there is virtually no open water race scenario that can’t be duplicated save waves, weather and wildlife.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of POW is the advantage it gives the coach and swimmer to see and understand what the athlete needs to do in open water scenarios to utilize the pool speed discovered in traditional practices and to stay safe. Open water clinics pass along great tricks and tips, but even a coach standing on a board has a hard time studying a swimmer’s changing form as they confront buoy turns, stray elbows and holding a straight line. Pool open water practices place the coach in an ideal position to see it all whether it’s hips dropping from over-sighting or drifting off course when lane lines aren’t around as guides. For the swimmer, POW sessions are a chance to learn how going fast feels without walls and turns to break things up. Things can happen in the open water, and when they do staying calm keeps the unexpected from becoming dangerous. POW sessions help new and even seasoned swimmers become safer in the chaotic mass starts of a typical open water race. The more you do it, the more you know that when hearts start to race and breathing quickens it’s not panic, it’s just the fun getting started.
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Bruckner Chase is a triathlon and swim coach, ocean lifeguard trainer, endurance waterman and ocean advocate whose marine and community endeavors have taken him to waters around the world is places such as Australia, American Samoa, Denmark, Greece and Poland. He is a global ambassador for the Lifesaving World Championship 2018 organizing committee, and he is the Technical Director and Media Ambassador for the Red Bull Surf + Rescue Championships. Closer to his home in New Jersey he is a member of the Sea Girt Beach Patrol and the founder of the Ocean City Swim Club. He is a professional member of the US Lifeguard Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Swim Coaches Association.
Bruckner’s athletic career spans the most challenging events on water and land. He competed as a professional triathlete, and he continues to be an elite level competitor in every endurance sport he takes on. On the water Bruckner has completed multiple ultra-distance swims and paddles in some of the harshest conditions imaginable: a record setting no wetsuit swim in Alaska, a 22-mile swim of Lake Tahoe and historic swims between the islands of American Samoa. Bruckner competes in professional surf lifesaving sports across multiple aquatic disciplines. He is the fifth American in history to compete in the iconic Coolangatta Gold Surf Iron Man in Australia, and in 2016 he became the only American to finish the event three times and the first to earn a spot on the winner’s podium.