Breaking the rules of specificity: Open water swim training in the pool

 June 17, 2016

By  Mikael Eriksson

Open water swim training is fantastic. It’s fun, it’s beautiful (often), and it develops race-specific swimming skills.

But it can be a difficult, if not impossible, logistical puzzle for busy triathletes to fit open water swim sessions in their busy calendars. Not to mention that some triathletes may not even have access to a body of open water to train in.

That’s where open water swim training in the pool comes to the rescue. Most of the skills you need on race day can be practiced to at least some extent within the confines of your pool.

If you want to improve your swim performance on race day but for any of the reasons above you’re not able to do much open water swim training, then read on! You’ll learn about five specific skill sets you’ll need on race day that can be practiced in the pool almost as well as in the open water.

  • Race-intensity swimming
  • Sighting
  • Swimming in a pack
  • No-break swimming
  • Transitions

Let’s take a look at how you can train each of these skillsets in the comfort of your pool, to ultimately become a better open water swimmer and triathlete.

Race-intensity swimming

The first of these points is pretty obvious. An intensity level is an intensity level, whether you do it in the open water in a race or in the pool in training.

Split your race distance into 5 or 6 intervals. Swim these intervals on short recoveries (slightly longer for longer intervals, as per the examples). If you can do this workout at a certain intensity level, then you’ll most likely be able to hold the same intensity in a race situation, even without the recoveries.

Example pool workout (sprint distance goal race):
Do a main set of 5 x 150 m at race intensity with 20 seconds recovery.
Example pool workout (70.3 goal race):
Do a main set of 6 x 300 m at race intensity with 30 seconds recovery.


If you’re new to sighting and open water swimming, check out THIS excellent video by swim coach Brenton Ford at Effortless Swimming about how to sight in open water.

Although sighting is best practiced in the open water, you can definitely do it in the pool as well. Just pick a landmark at or behind the opposite end of the pool. practice sighting every 6-8 strokes or so, and make sure that you catch the landmark with your glance every time you sight. Keep your sighting as quick and non-disruptive for your swimming form as possible.

Pro tip: place some brightly colored objects, like pull buoys or similar, at each end of the pool and use them as landmarks.

Once you get used to sighting, try swimming with your eyes closed. Look where you’re going only when you look up and sight. Never look at the blue line.

Example workout:
Repeat 100 m intervals where the first 3 lengths (or 75 m in a 50 m pool) you sight every 6-8 strokes as described above, but with your eyes open all the time. The final 25 m, close your eyes and try to go straight using just your sighting as guidance. Do as many intervals as you like.

Swimming in pack

Get together with a group of friends to simulate the washing machine melee that is a triathlon swim. There are many ways you can do this, but try to do at least these two:

  • Swim several people abreast in one lane, or half a lane if there’s just two of you. Make sure that there’s no avoiding contact. You want to get used to getting kicked and hit.
  • Swim behind each other to practice drafting. Take turns and learn to position yourself in the lower-drag slip-stream just behind another swimmer. Don’t apologize for accidentally hitting your buddies when overtaking them at the end of the lane.
Example workout:
Alternate 100 m intervals of swimming four people abreast in one lane with 100 m intervals in two lines of two people. The front and back lines of two change positions every 25 m and draft off of each other. Make sure everybody keeps up with the pace, but if you’re similarly paced, you can make it quite competitive.

No-breaks swimming

This one is especially important for those who are not completely confident in their abilities to go the distance of the race. But even those who are can get great benefits from it, both physically and mentally.

What you do is to simply make your turns just before the wall instead of at the wall. That is, no pushing off from the wall or touching it at all for that matter.

Try to get back into a rhythm quickly after the turn. This simulates all sorts of race situations that might break your rhythm, like getting caught up in a melee of swimmers, having to stop to take a longer look at the course ahead to make sure you’re on track in rough waters, and so on.

Example workout (Olympic distance goal race)
Do a main set of 2 x 750 m where you turn at the T of the blue line, and never touch the wall. Take a 45-second to 1-minute recovery between the two reps. For bonus points, combine the sighting practices described above with this swim set.


There are three main aspects you can practice in the pool when it comes to transitions:

  • The race start (let’s call it a transition here just for simplicity)
  • The exit from the water
  • Wetsuit removal (if your race is a wetsuit swim)

The race start is best practiced by doing a warm-up similar to what you’ll do on race day. Stand around for a bit (if it’s a beach start) or stay in the pool (if it’s a water start) to simulate waiting for the start. Then start swimming at your planned swim start intensity.

For some, especially beginners, this means practicing not going out too fast. What you need to do is keep your effort level down and don’t allow yourself to waste too much energy through a reckless starting pace.

For those that want to race competitively, this means going out faster than your overall swim pace. You’ll need to do that in the race to get into a good position.

Example workout:
Swim about a sixth of your goal race swim distance at your planned starting pace (very controlled for beginners, faster than overall swim race pace for competitive athletes).

You can practice the exit from the water to get used to the elevated heart rate and dizziness that you might experience in the race. This is best done by swimming at race intensity, and at certain intervals (for example every 200 m) you quickly push yourself up the deck, do a short jog (if you’re allowed to do that at your pool) or fast walk of about 30 seconds, and then jump back in the pool for another interval. If doing a jog/walk isn’t possible, run in place for the 30-second period.

Try to get your breathing and dizziness under control as quickly as quickly as possible when exiting the water. Don’t let being out of breath or being a bit dizzy stop you from immediately starting the short jog/walk. Learn to start moving towards the transition zone immediately anyway.

If you’ll race in a wetsuit, combine the above practice with practicing wetsuit removal. Simply take your wetsuit off after completing the 30-second jog/walk. Then put it back on and jump back in for another go. You don’t necessarily need to remove your wetsuit after every single interval, but do it a few times at least to get in the habit and become quicker and more efficient.

Example workout:
Do a main set of 3 to 8 intervals (depending on your swim fitness and ability) of 200 m. The intensity should be high enough that you feel that you’re working reasonably hard towards the end of the intervals. At the end of each interval, quickly climb out of the pool and immediately start a 30-second jog or run in place. After every other bout of exiting the water, quickly remove your wetsuit, and then put it back on. Jump back into the pool for the next interval.


I’ll say it right away. Do try to do as much open water swimming as you can. Training in the pool can to some extent replace open water swim training, but it’s just not quite as good training for the specific demands of race day.

However, by consistently simulating open water swimming in your regular pool training sessions, you can minimize the amount of time you need to spend on real open water swim training. The little training that you do in the open water will still count for a whole lot.

My suggestion is to incorporate some of these open water swim training elements (race-specific elements in the case of race intensity training) once a week starting at latest 8 weeks out from your goal race.

A final note on wetsuits: yes, you can use it in these training sessions for more than just the wetsuit removal practice, and it’s a good thing doing so. Getting used to swimming in your wetsuit can make a big difference. Another option is to use LAVA pants.

The main takeaway is to implement this in your training. Whether you can swim in the open water as well or not. I do both and find that doing some open water swim training in the pool as laid out in this post helps a great deal.

Finally, if you’re a slightly less experienced triathlete, and prefer to remove all guesswork from the example workouts provided, here are two sample workouts (two each for a sprint and an Olympic distance goal race) that you can download and follow to the tee.

Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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