Beginners, Podcast, Racing, Swimming, Training

Open water swimming: training and racing tips with coach Brenton Ford | EP#18

 May 5, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Open water swimming: training and racing tips with coach Brenton Ford | EP#18

The swim is the one triathlon discipline that most triathletes are the least confident about.

Not only is swimming a very difficult sport technically, even in the safe confinement of a pool, but when you get to the open water and have to deal with waves, currents, and hundreds of other triathletes, the sport changes entirely - and it doesn't get any easier.

Brenton Ford is a top Australian swim coach, founder of Effortless swimming, and former national level competitive swimmer. On today's episode he discusses how to improve your open water swimming in both training and racing.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The different training approach required for open water swimming compared to pool swimming.
  • How to swim better in the open water.
  • Open water swimming workouts in the pool and in the open water.
  • Open water swimming tips for race day.
  • How to do a proper race day warm-up.
  • Overcoming open water or race day anxiety.


​Brenton's background

01:43 -

What was the big difference when you started training for triathlons and not just swimming?

04:52 -​

  • The two biggest things for me were time management and my mobility. I found that my mobility was poorer, especially through the shoulders, and I was less flexible from all the biking and running that I was doing.
  • I saw a direct correlation between my flexibility and my swim time. In the space of about six weeks, my swim times slowed down by about two seconds per hundred.

What are the differences and similarities between open water and pool swimming?

06:39 -​

  • For me, working with a lot of triathletes, I originally used to work a lot with pool swimmers mostly, but now I would say triathletes and obviously open water swimming is a big part of that.
  • One of the things that I would normally put focus on is a slightly faster stroke rate and that can come naturally from wearing a wet suit. If you are wearing a wet suit or if you are in the ocean where there is salt water, you are going to be a bit more buoyant, so naturally it is easier to get your stroke rate up but for the most part we try and get people to raise it by two, three, or four strokes per minute just because if you are in open water there is often going to be choppiness and other people around. In order to have stability and balance, you sometimes need to get that stroke rate up a little bit.
  • The other thing is that your recovery can change as well. When you come over the top of the water with your arm, a lot of people try and stay very close to the water with their hand as they come over the top. What that can do, if there are chops or any waves, it is a lot easier to hit your hand with that oncoming water. So what we do with a lot of people is get them to recover a little wider, a little more open with their arms over the top and not be afraid to swim with a slightly straighter recovery too. If you look at the top guys in ITU or Ironman, a lot of those people are swimming with a straighter arm recovery and that is because you are going to be a little bit tighter in a wet suit and it does not matter too much how you get over the top of the water. It is more about how you enter and what happens after that. There is no point being too pretty or too cautious with that recovery. We focus on just getting the hand in front of the shoulder, driving with some assertiveness and purpose because if you are being too soft and gentle, you are going to be a victim in the water.
  • Some of the other things, obviously the open water skills and it is almost like a separate stroke in itself.
  • When I first started out in open water swimming, it took me probably two or three years just to get good at those skills because I came from a pool swimming background, which I did for 15 years. When I first went open water, I was not nearly as good as I should have been based on the experience that I had in the water. It took me a good couple of years to really get those down and get good at them by practicing swimming in open water and you are sighting and drafting. It is really a skill that you got to have and navigating.
  • The last thing is the timing of the stroke. For some people, when they go open water, they benefit from what we call split stroke timing. A friend of mine, Eney Jones who is a coach from Boulder, Colorado, talks about this. When you look at top triathletes and some of the open water swimmers, you will see that one arm will recover over the top faster than the other arm, so that is split stroke timing. It is not going to be that constant taking over. They have got that choppy stroke that you see. That will help you deal with waves and chops. It can be a really good strategy and a good way to find your rhythm when you are swimming open water.

Key takeaways

  • Raise your stroke rate by 2-4 strokes per minute compared to the pool
  • No need to be pretty with the recovery, just avoid the chop and focus on how you enter the water and what happens after that
  • Practice sighting, navigation and drafting a lot
  • Consider using split stroke timing - one arm recovers faster than the other

How should we train differently as triathletes and open water swimmers compared to traditional pool swimmers?

09:35 -​

  • Some of the things I do with my squad, when I am coaching them, the first thing is just probably once a week we will do some open water skills in the pool like practice swimming in a pack, having other people around you, getting comfortable being uncomfortable in the water, and getting used to people touch your feet or you being behind someone and having the water chopped up. Practicing those sort of skills of swimming in a pack and not being in completely calm and still water is a good way to do that. You can do that in the pool and it just takes swimming with a squad to do it. If you are training on your own, it is a little bit harder to do. If you can get to the open water, the lake or the ocean, and just practice in the environment that you are going to be racing in, that is the first step to getting better in the open water.​
  • Some of the things that we also do in training is just practicing your sighting. Navigation is probably one of the main things that can slow someone down. If you don’t swim straight in the race, it is just absolutely wasted energy. You can swim 10% to 20% more than what the actual distance of the race is. If you look at your Garmin for your last race, if it is not within five percent of what the actual course is, then you know you may have gone off course a little bit.
  • You only need to do that once a week to get used to it but having the right method of doing that is really important too. What I often see people doing is when they go to sight, they will do it the wrong way. They will take a stroke and then they will look forward. It is a little bit hard to explain over a podcast. Basically, what a lot of people do which slows them down is that they take a stroke and then they look forward instead of looking forward and then taking a stroke and breathing. This is called the sight and breathe method. I have a video on Youtube (see below) which takes you through it. Just those basic skills and practicing them in the pool is the first thing that I would get people to do.

Do you always practice sighting in the open water or do you practice the actual technique of sighting in the pool?​

11:44 -

  • Yes, practicing sighting in the pool is the next best thing to doing it in the ocean. It is good to get used to sighting every four, six or eight strokes. A lot of people, when I first start working with them, are not sighting enough. They might be taking 12 to 20 strokes in between every look forward. That is not just enough, you got to do it between four and eight strokes, depending on the condition, the course and whether everyone is on track and you can fully fit. It comes down to a lot of variables but if you watch the top triathletes, you will see how regularly they are sighting. So just get comfortable making it a part of your stroke so you are not changing your rhythm or your timing. It is a really big thing so if you only have been swimming for 12 months and you have not done much practice with sighting, it is worth spending a bit of time doing that before you start your first race.​

Key takeaway

  • Sight every 4, 6 or 8 strokes!

How do you structure workouts in the open water?

13:57 -​

  • If you are swimming on your own, one way to do it is do a 400 to 500 meter warm-up to get yourself ready. Then we will do variants of on and off. So it might be 10 to 15 minutes of swimming where you are going 50 strokes fast and then 50 strokes easy. Just get used to that change in pace.
  • Another thing that I sometimes do, where I live here in Melbourne, the beach where I normally swim at, there is about a 400 meter pole to pole swim course so I might do something like three lots of 400 or four lots of 400. I am looking to get faster each one. The first one is easy, the second one is medium, and the third one is fast. You can do very similar types of workouts in the pool, it just depends on who you are with.
  • If you have a group to swim with, then it is really good to do some race practice. Have everyone start on the beach or on the water, and then set up a little course that might be 400 or 500 meters and just get used to having everyone around you swimming fast and just trying to get one up on each other and get used to that race environment. There is nothing that beats race practice. If you take four or five months out of the season, in the off season when you are training and you haven’t got any races, more often than not you are probably feeling that first race you still haven’t got your skills quite down. So if you haven’t raced for a little while, you really want to get that practice in there. The best way to do it is make it as close to race practice as possible and you can do that with a group of people.

Key takeaway

  • Workout type 1: variants of on and off, e.g. 15 minutes of swimming as 15 strokes fast, 15 easy.
  • Workout type 2: Descending intervals, e.g. 3 or 4 times 400 m, each one faster than the previous
  • Workout type 3: Race practice with a group of people

Is there anything else specifically for race day that you should do to prepare yourself and do in the race itself?

15:57 -​

  • There is a bit of a routine that I normally go through on race day and that is to get there pretty early and I know that a lot of triathletes tend to be very OCD about this type of thing, about going through their routine, which is good. You want to have that routine.
  • So I get there early, make sure that I have time to warm up, get comfortable, and have a look at the course. If you don’t know exactly where the course is going, just have a look at where the buoys are and just see if they line up with anything so that you know as soon as you turn up for the first buoy you might need to look for something bigger behind it. If it is hard to see, you might need to look at some object or trees or buildings on the land that is behind that buoy to help you navigate.
  • Some of the other things are to visualize that race, so if you haven’t visualized yourself going through that triathlon before the day, even for just a couple of minutes beforehand, I would normally just picture myself how I want the race to go and how I want to be in that swim. So for me, I always want to lead the swim because that is my strongest leg. So I picture myself getting away from the group or the pack within the first couple of hundred meters and then swimming my own race and picturing the time that I want to do and how I want it to feel.
  • After that, is a bit of warm up. When I am working with people, I ask what their warm up is before a race and some of them won’t get in the water and swim. That is probably one of the biggest mistakes you can make, I think. I mean some triathlons they don’t allow you to get in the water and swim but if you have that option and you are not getting in the water, you will probably find that after the first three or four hundred meters you might feel very fatigued and heavy and that is because you haven’t done that pre-race warm up. I always get my swimmers to do some easy swimming then maybe some drills just to get a feel for the water. But then make sure you are getting your heart rate up and getting that blood flowing because if you haven’t got the blood flowing before the race that is when you start to feel fatigued.
  • Do the right warm up and find your spot in the pack and on the start line. Because if you are a swimmer who is not comfortable in the open water and you decide to sit in the middle of the swim pack there is a good chance you might be swimming over the top or you might have people hitting your legs and arms and you are not comfortable with that. So whatever it is for you, find that spot in the group or the start line that is going to be most comfortable for you and fits your race plan.​
  • In the race itself, I like to keep it very simple. For me it just comes down to that first 300 meters just trying to keep the heart rate down and get the speed up. Find that rhythm that I can settle into. Because if you all race in an Ironman event, it is a good 45 minutes to an hour and a half of swimming , so it is all about finding that rhythm that you can settle into and you know you can maintain for the race. I have seen a lot of people try someone else’s race, so they will go to the start line, be next to someone and that person might be five or ten minutes faster than them overall and they try and stick with them for the first 400 meters and by that stage they have just blown up and they have nothing left. You are going to make that judgement call. If you are going to stick with someone, then it is going to end up in a slower time. That is what I saw when I raced my first half Ironman and my first Ironman. I had the same swimmer who started next to me and for the first 300 meters he tried to stick with me. I could tell he was going too hard and he would be able to keep up that speed in that stroke rate. Then he dropped away and got swallowed by the pack after that. You have to make that judgment call but try to make your own race as much as possible.

Key takeaway

  • Get to the race early, make you have time to warm up, get comfortable, and have a look at the course.
  • Visualize the race beforehand
  • Warm up with some easy swimming, some drills, and get your heart rate up.
  • Find a good starting position that you will be comfortable with
  • Find a speed and rhythm you can settle into and maintain the whole race. Race your own race, not somebody else's.

In swimming specifically, do you have any indicators for what pace you should go in your race?

19:46 -.

  • ​To get a good idea of what pace you might be doing in a race we do things called threshold sets also known as CSS sets. It is basically swimming at that speed and effort where you are not quite filling up with lactic acid and you still manage to flush that out of your system. So we would do a set of fifteen 100s at threshold pace where it is fast but sustainable. Let us say that is a 1:30 and you are going on a 1:45, and if you can maintain that 1:30 over the fifteen 100s then you got a pretty good idea that you can probably hold that for your Olympic distance triathlon.
  • Now if you are wearing a wetsuit, you might be a little bit faster. It can be anywhere from five seconds up to fifteen seconds if you are a swimmer who is at around the two-minute pace per 100 or 2:15 per 100. We have seen people who have gotten 10 or 15 seconds faster per hundred just by putting a wetsuit on. It kind of varies for each swimmer but what I find being the best way to get a feel for what pace you can hold is by swimming without your Garmin, swimming without your watch and just getting a feel for the effort that you are putting into the pace that you are getting.
  • One of my biggest pet hates is people who are on the watch all the time. If I had my way, I would want them to just not use their watch at all because swimming is so much about feel. What I focus on a lot is technique and we run a lot of clinics and camps around Australia and overseas. If you focus too much on your watch then you are not thinking that much about the feel for things. Now you hear a lot of coaches and swimmers talking about feel for the water and it is also a feel for your pacing. If you find it hard to judge that pace in the race, then you might be on your watch too much and thinking about it because when you are swimming in a race you are not going to be looking at your pace like you would on the bike or on the run. What I would recommend for most people is don’t train with a watch. Just remember your workout and you can upload it to Training Peaks later on, but the best way to get a feel is to do it without that watch.

Key takeaway

  • Threshold sets like 15 x 100 m can be a good indicator of race pace for Olympic distance triathlons.
  • A wetsuit will make you 5 to 15 seconds faster depending on your swim abilities.
  • Not training with a watch will help you get a better feel for your pacing.

What are your tips for those people who have swimming anxiety, especially in mass starts and open water swimming?

23:35 -

  • The main one is focus on your breathing. We run a camp in Thailand where one of the coaches talked about keeping your heart rate down on the start line. If you race in an Ironman and you trained up to 12 months leading up to it, you are going to have a lot of nerves and anxiety on that one because so much work has gone into it. Keep your heart rate down and just focus on your breathing.​
  • There is no point in getting amped up and ready to just fire off at that start line. It is about staying as relaxed as possible.
  • What I try and do at the start line is slow my breath down. I will take a breath in for four to five seconds and then a breath out for four to five seconds as well. Just keep relaxed until the start gun goes.

Key takeaway

  • Stay relaxed and keep your heart rate down by focusing on your breathing.
  • Repeatedly breathe in for 4 to 5 seconds, and then breathe out for 4 to 5 seconds.

Rapid fire questions

25:28 -​

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to swimming or triathlon? The book "Swim Speed Secrets" by Sheila Taormina
  • What is your favorite swimming tool or toy? Engine swim paddles and DMC fins
  • What personal habit has helped you achieve success? It is being around people who push me to be better.
  • What is the most beautiful place that you have been open water swimming? Kas in Turkey and Korcula in Croatia
  • What do you wish you had known or had done differently at some point in your career? I wish I had slept more. I was always sleep deprived.

Links and resources

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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.

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