Polar bear plunges are not the answer for most swimmers and triathletes, so most of us survive winter by just grinding out a few pool yards. Although this summer’s open water and triathlon season may be a distant light at the end of a twenty five meter tunnel, how you spend your winter days circle swimming can make a huge impact on how you feel and perform in this season’s open water events.
Experienced swimmers structure their pool workouts around intervals designed to increase speed and conditioning by controlling the rest, distance and intensity of various “sets.” Pool or ocean, swimmers need to apply the same training methods as runners and cyclists to improve performance: Duplicate race situations and stress your body beyond its comfort zone. There is no substitute for spending time in the ocean, lake or bay, but there are methods to simulate the physiological conditions we encounter in the open water.
Once away from the pool, the most common mistake is not applying the pool principals that may have gotten you faster over the winter. While you wait for the roads to be plowed and the pool to re-open, find a way to incorporate some of the following principle into your winter and summer training sessions.
Pool Techniques & Drills for Open Water Success:
• Head-Up 50’s – Just what they sound like. Drill: Swim 3 x 50 freestyle and check your times for each swim. Next, swim 3 x 50 and this time lift your head twice on each length to sight on an object at the end of the pool. Check your times and work on improving the quickness and efficiency of sighting those imaginary buoys.
• Longer “Broken” Swims – Duplicate the mad rush of the start by doing intervals that take your heart rate up and then force you to relax and find your groove. Drill: Swim 300 meters on an interval that allows twenty seconds of rest after each repeat. Within each 300, swim 50 at 85%, rest ten seconds, 200 at 65%, rest ten seconds, 50 at 85%. Repeat this two or more times as your conditioning improves.
• Breath Control Swims – Holding or controlling your breathing during swims extends your ability to overcome the panic driven urge to breathe. When you are diving under waves or miss a couple of breaths in a mass swim start, this tolerance will help you stay calm and focused. Drill: Swim 100 and for the 25’s – (1) breathe every stroke, (2) every third, (3) every fifth and (4) every seventh. Take a long rest interval and repeat based on your level of conditioning.
• Flag Runs – If you want to reinforce when swimming is faster than running, have some fun and build some leg strength add a little running to your swim. Drill: Start in the shallow end with one hand on the wall, RUN to the first flags, push off from the bottom and sprint the rest of a 50.
Open Water Techniques & Drills for Safety and Performance:
• Walk the Shore: Walk waist deep into the water and survey the bottom for rocks, sand bars or unstable footing, and make this part of every pre-race or pre-training ritual. While you are checking the bottom watch the water for currents, chop, waves and rips. Learn more about how to read the water by joining an experienced open water group or asking the lifeguards.
• In & Outs: From ten yards up the beach run into the water and sprint 50 to 100 yards or just past the surf break. Recover for a minute then sprint back in and up the beach to your starting point.
• Tempo Training: Don’t just float around and let every open water session be a social swim. After warming up for a few minutes, begin race pace swims with controlled rest intervals. Drill: Three minutes at an 80%effort followed by one minute at 50%. Repeat the pattern several times based on your level of conditioning.
• No Wall Intervals: Replace the twenty-five meter pool standard with sets based on stroke counts. Drill: 25 strokes at 75%, 25 strokes at 85%, 50 Strokes at 95%. The combinations are as infinite as your pool workouts without the need to learn flip turns.
• Time Trial: Find a course that will take fifteen to thirty minutes to swim. “Race” the course and record your time to set an early season benchmark. Repeat the same distance swim over the summer to measure your conditioning and progress. Keep in mind that different water conditions can affect your time, so focus as much on your perceived exertion as you do on the overall time.
• Play: Get comfortable in the water. Body surf, paddleboard, play in the waves or just practice putting your head down and looking into the deep. If you spend long enough in the ocean your are going to be bumped by something unexpected, splashed by a dolphin, startled by a plastic bag or stung by a jellyfish. Statistically your bike ride is more dangerous than the chance of a life-threatening encounter in the ocean, so keep in mind that often the scariest things in the open water are the fears we bring with us from the land.
Pick a few drills from the list above to work a little variety into your winter lane time and visualize the open water sessions you can have when the snow forecasts become wave reports. Experiment to see what works to keep you motivated, and remember how you feel about the water is as important as a feel for the water.
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.