How To Train For An Open Water Swim

How To Train For An Open Water Swim

Before searching online for a specific open water swimming training program for any distance whether it is for a one-mile swim or the English Channel, it is important to seek the advice and obtain the guidance from experienced coaches.

Learn from other swimmers, talk to those who have done similar swims, but it is always best to consult with an experienced coach – someone who has preferably seen dozens – if not hundreds – of swims.

An experienced open water swimming coach is someone who continues to seek knowledge about training, techniques, tactics, escorting, hypothermia, hyperthermia, marine life, currents, tides, hydration, navigation, feeding, injury prevention, psychology, training recovery and the innumerable other factors that can positively or negatively affect an open water swim of any distance.

What a coach learns in one venue and under a certain range of water and weather conditions is important and helps them understand how other factors in other venues under different conditions can affect their athletes.

For example, surface chop and waves can affect you even greater psychologically than physically. Likewise, it is best to understand how waves form, where they form, how water flows around a jetty or pier, how small 1-foot chop in a lake can be more disconcerting than 5-foot swells in an ocean, how 18°C (64.4°F) water in a blustery, overcast summer day when their athlete is dehydrated and tired can be more problematic than 16°C (60.8°F) water on a calm, sunny spring day.

The continuous accumulation of knowledge and experience in open water swimming – like other activities in life – is vitally important. It is especially true in the open water where there is inherent risk anytime anyone ventures past the shoreline.

Therefore, truly experienced open water swimming coaches do not have one-size-fits-all training programs for their athletes. Experienced coaches know that optimal – and safe – performance is based on a training program that is specific to the individual and their specific open water swimming goals. Open water swims are not formulaic like pool swimming or even a marathon run.

An optimal open water swimming training program takes into account the swimmer’s goals (i.e., in terms of speed and sense of accomplishment), timetable to achieve those goals (e.g., do they have 1 month to train or 4 years?), athletic backgrounds (e.g., are they a newcomer, a triathlete, a competitive teenage swimmer or a masters swimmer with decades of swimming experience?), tolerance to marine life, age, use of a wetsuit or protective swimwear, and the venue (e.g., from cold high-altitude lakes to warm tropical seas with waves and jellyfish).

What works for one open water swimmer will not necessarily be optimal for the next swimmer simply because there are so many variables and water and weather conditions can vastly differ. For example, if you are 35 years old swimming in pools in Chicago and going to do a 10K swim in Lake Tahoe, this training would be vastly different than a 2.4-mile swim in the Cayman Islands. There is much specificity to achieve optimal performance.

That being said, if you only want to complete a swim, from point A to point B, without worrying about your time or place, then we suggest swimming a minimum of 60% of your race non-stop at least 3 times before race day. Consistency in training is also vital, as is training in similar conditions that you expect on race day (i.e., train in warm water for a warm water race and in cold water for a cold water race). If you plan to wear a wetsuit, then your training focus changes accordingly. If the water temperature is extreme for you (not for others, but specifically vis-à-vis your own tolerance levels), then training must include acclimatization to those temperatures and conditions.

So while there may appear to be little specificity in open water swimming, there is indeed plenty for your optimal performance and, ultimately, your own safety. An experienced open water swimming coach will be able to help you formulate specific daily workouts over the course of a season to reach your goal.

Photo above shows young aspirants to the Olympic 10km Marathon Swim doing a POW (Pool Open Water) workout.

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