Podcast, Swimming

Open water swim training with Olympic gold medal coach Marcel Wouda | EP#246

 August 10, 2020

By  Mikael Eriksson


Marcel Wouda

Marcel Wouda is a swim and open water swimming coach from the Netherlands, who has coached and worked with multiple Olympic gold medalists, including the 2008 and 2016 (men's and women's) Olympic open water champions Maarten van der Weijden, Ferry Weertman, and Sharon van Rouwendaal.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Marcel's open water swim coaching philosophy
  • The specific demands of open water swim races, and training to meet those demands
  • Example training weeks and key workouts for open water swimmers
  • Periodisation
  • Performance testing
  • Dryland training
  • Swim toys, gadgets and technology
  • Advice for triathletes on improving their open water swimming

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07:00 - 

  • I have been a competitive swimmer for 20 years and after my third Olympic games I decided to retire from professional swimming.

    As a swimmer I was specialized in the medley discipline and one the highlights of my career was setting the short course world record in the 200m individual medley.

    I also have a bronze medal from the 4x200m freestyle relay event for the Netherlands team from the Sidney Olympics.
  • As I had retired from competitive swimming I discovered that I had a true passion for coaching and hence I took the required coaching classes and started working as a coach.

    In my coaching career, I have coached the Netherlands junior national team and currently I am the head coach of a high performance swimming center here in the Netherlands.

    As a swimming coach, I have specialized in open water swimming, and lately I have coached several athletes to great success in major open water swimming events, such as the Olympics.

Training a pool swimming squad v.s. an open water squad

10:05 -

  • Up until around two years ago, the pool swimming squad and the open water squad did a lot of work together, but this has changed significantly in the last two years.

    Now, they train almost always separately and quite differently due to the different demands that these two types of swimming events have.
  • In terms of if we do a lot of our training in open water, we do not!

    But this also depends a little bit on the event that we are targeting.

    Let’s take the Rio Olympics as an example, the setting for the open water swimming events there was rather rough and required some pretty special skills, like being able to handle waves, tide currents and different water temperatures, and all this required special training, which obviously had to be done on the open water environment.

    As we are now targeting the Tokyo Olympics, the open water swim setting there is very different from the one in Rio and the water is very calm and therefore quite similar to the pool, so for this event we do not need to address specific open water skills in an equally extensive manner prior to the event.

    However, my theory is that in order to get really good at swimming open water, one must develop a big engine, and this can be done in either the pool or the open water setting, but since the pool is a much more controlled environment, I prefer that setting.
  • We also implement blocks of open water swimming during specific times of the season, particularly close to big events, during such blocks (around 3 weeks) we do up to 80 % of all swimming in the open water.

Transitioning to open water

16:30 -

  • Very few swimmers set out to become specialized in open water at an early age.
  • For 17-18 years old swimmers who show interest in maybe transitioning to open water, I use to suggest a two years plan.

    During the first year of the plan, a large emphasize is placed on high volume in the pool, which will come to benefit for pool distances of 400-1500m as well as for open water swimming.

    In the second year, the athlete has to decide whether he or she wants to pursue open water events or continue to focus on pool swimming, hence the first year keeps both ”doors open”.

    If the athlete decides to start focus on open water swimming, then we start to develop special open water skills such as turning around buoys, swimming in a pack, etc.

    Some of these skills (such as race tactics) can only be practiced during races, but we try and simulate as much as possible in the training as well.

    However, because of this, it generally takes some racing experience in order to start performing well at a high level as an open water swimmer.
  • To become a successful open water swimmer, I think you need to train between 80-100 km per week, and that first year prepare the athlete for just that.
  • Another aspect of transitioning to open water is the mental aspect of being able to push oneself for almost 2h, which is the race time of the 10 km open water event, this takes a few races to get accustomed to for beginner open water swimmers!

My training vision for open water swimming

25:00 -

  • When I started coaching my first athlete specializing towards open water, we both were quite certain about that we needed to improve his performance over 1500m in the pool and that this would in turn generate great improvement to open water swimming.

    So for a year we worked on his 1500m time, which he managed to improve significantly, however, his performance over the 10 km open water event did not improve.
  • This made me start thinking really hard about how to address open water swimming.

    I started analyzing the races and found out that almost all races have a very similar development, the first 95mins are at a fairly easy pace of around 1mins 6s per 100m and from there on the race ”takes off” and the final 15mins the pace drops to ~1:04 pace and finally the last 100m is at sub 1:00 pace.

    So what you need to be able to do is to get through those first 95mins without wasting too much energy in order to really be able to turn the gas on during the last 15mins and even more so for the final 100m.

    Therefore, you need to be able to swim at a rather broad range of different speeds.
  • Consequently I started to develop my athletes to be able to comfortably keep 1:06 pace for around 90mins, which I mainly achieve by plenty of easy aerobic work.

    This is highly emphasized primarily during the build up of the season when we typically swim between 80-85 km per week (11-12 km during the morning sessions and between 7-8 km in the afternoon), where I would say around 95 % of all training is at this easy aerobic effort (not medium effort since I have found that it tends to impair the quality of the additional speed work we do during this period).

    If this easy aerobic efforts would be translated to blood lactate levels, the athletes are around 1-1.5 mmol lactate, and this is also the lactate level I would like to see that they can sustain at competition pace of 1:06.

    We have special lactate testing protocols to determine the lactate profile of the athletes, which yields metrics such as aerobic power and anaerobic capacity.

    Also, a good indicator of how well the athletes can sustain that 1:06 pace is if they can hold that pace continuously for 2-2.5h, then I know that they will be able to cruise through that first 95mins of the race!
  • Pace wise, they usually do their easy aerobic sets at 1:13-1:16 pace.

    An example of a long set could be 4x2.5 km.

    Sometimes we use tools like paddles and different kind of gear that increase the drag a little bit, like swimming with a T-shirt on, which helps to develop the strength in the stroke (which I have found is important for especially open water swimming).

    The additional 5 % is very speed oriented, where we try and increase the maximum speed by doing plenty of 20-50m sprints.

    During this phase of the season we also pay plenty of attention to the technique so that my swimmers can swim very energy efficient during especially those first 95mins of the race.
  • As the season approaches, I introduce some long sets at race pace (1:06 pace) to get the athletes accustomed to holding this pace for a long time.
  • As we get even closer to the season I introduce very race specific sets starting off at 1:06 pace and from there the pace increases progressively as it does in a race.
  • The greatest difference between my training philosophy for open water swimming and other open water swimming coaches’ philosophy is that I train my athletes to develop a broad range of different speeds while other coaches train their athlete to have a fairly narrow pace range.

    While other athletes can hold 1:01-1:02 pace for a long time but only push themselves down to around 58s during that final 100m, my athletes cannot sustain 1:01-1:02 pace for an equally long time but they can easily hold 1:06 pace, which is what they need to stay in the pack, but then they can finish off that final 100m in 54s!
  • Since the aerobic and anaerobic system are working against each other it is very tricky to get the athletes to both have a great aerobic capacity to go with the group the first 95mins and after that really turn on the anaerobic system so that they can go really fast during the remaining 15mins.

    My theory here is that it is better to develop these systems to a very large degree first, get the athletes to a very high VO2max and VlaMax, if the VlaMax then is a bit too high coming into the race, it can easily be reduced by specific training, and this is easier to do compared to increasing the VlaMax rather quickly as the race approaches.

Dry land training

51:35 -

  • We think that for open water swimming, the pool training is most important, hence, all dry land training is focused on being able to get the most out of the pool training.

    Therefore, our dry land training is directed towards injury prevention and core stabilization since having a firm core is a key to be able to swim in the pack in an efficient way and not get tossed around too much from the other athletes.

    Example of strength exercises that we use are the redcord system, versions of the plank exercise etc

    When it comes to injuries, our greatest prevention measures are directed towards shoulder injuries, since they tend to occur quite frequently among swimmers.

Beneficial tools

58:05 -

  • In the build up towards the season, we use the snorkel a lot.

    In the middle of the build up period and towards the race season we implement several exercises that focus on being able to breath at both sides and sighting technique as well.

    Sighting can be very tricky and many swimmers push the water too much down while they sight, which decreases the propulsion forward.

    We also use fins for over speed work, technique drills and kick training.

Advice to age group athletes

01:02:05 -

  • Work on your technique!

    Doing a video analysis is probably the best way to work on your technique and also try and get some personal advice from a swimming coach.

    I see so many triathletes wasting too much energy when during the first discipline of the triathlon, which they so desperately need during the bike and the run later on.
  • Also work on your flexibility in their upper body and shoulders from all the cycling and running.
  • The aerobic capacity is probably not the limiting factors for most triathletes since that system is rather well developed from cycling and running.

    Therefore I would also recommend to do some speed work in the pool to ensure that the speed to swim fast is present, with a good take out speed, a good engine and some technique work (during easy aerobic swimming), I think many triathletes can improve quite a bit in the water.

Rapid fire questions

1:05:25 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to swimming or endurance sports? Jan Olbrecht’s book the science of winning.
  • What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? Paddles.
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? Determination, never ever give up!


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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