Open Water Swimming: What You CAN Prepare For

I know last week’s blog could come across as a bit of a downer, so I wanted to bring the mood back up and revisit what we talked about. Yes, there are TONS of factors in open water swimming that you have zero control over and can’t prepare for. But what about the ones you do have control over? The ones you can work day in and day out helping your body get ready to adapt to what the water might throw at you? Let’s see what they are.

Firstly, you can NEVER be too prepared in terms of sighting. Being able to sight properly and in a way that won’t negatively impact your swim/swim time is something you can never spend too much time on. Alligator Eyes is the perfect drill to help you get used to sighting in the open water. Yes, you’ll be able to see. No, it won’t be as clear or precise as if you were sitting on your couch staring at the “Are You Still Watching?” screen Netflix likes to use to judge us.

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SwimBox Swimming Lessons SwimBox Fairfax Swim Coach SwimBox Swim Lessons Arlington SwimBox Sterling Swim Lessons SwimBox

You want to tilt your head upwards until your eyes breach the surface of the water and you can see what’s in front of you. DO NOT LIFT YOUR HEAD. Lifting your head will cause your hips and legs to sink, resulting in extra drag and forcing your body to work harder to move through the water than necessary. It was also put strain on your neck and cause you to have to use your arms to help you balance, taking them out of the proper position to get a good catch, propulsive phase, and powerful finish. Take a look at our post on The Best Drills to Perfect Your Open Water Sighting for more in depth information on this drill.

Next on the list of things you can prepare for? Getting used to swimming in crowded waters. This one might take some ingenuity, but it can be done. Next time you’re heading to the pool for your swim workout grab 2-3 friends to go with you. In order to mimic having to navigate through water filled with other people, you and your 2-3 friends are going to line up on the wall, next to one another, and all swim at once. I want all of you to push off the wall at the same time and practice swimming super close to one another. I can hear what you’re thinking now, “Lissa, no way, we’re going to hit each other.” Guess what, you’re right! You will hit each other! And it’s going to feel weird and wrong and you probably won’t like it. BUT practicing swimming this way will help get your body used to the feeling of swimming in a large pack of crowded people, all fighting their way through the water.

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The last thing I want to touch base on in terms of open water preparation is buoy turns. Whether you do a corkscrew turn or you simply maneuver your way around the buoy, this is something you should practice. I know not everyone keeps extra buoys laying around their homes like my husband and I do (we know, we’re weird), but that shouldn’t stop you from practicing. Use a friend, tie a full water bottle around a pull buoy to anchor it in place, or find any object in the water that’s stationary and that you can turn on (think a pillon in a lake), and you’re good to go. Start by practicing a traditional buoy turn (simply swimming around it) and then work your way up to a corkscrew turn. A corkscrew turn simply adds a backstroke stroke into the mix to help you stay tight and keep your momentum up while you’re getting around the buoy. Take a look at the video below for examples of how to best start learning a corkscrew turn, first in the pool and then in the open water.

What else can you prepare for? Your fuel. I always bring way too much food to swim meets just to be safe. Triathlons are even more important to fuel yourself properly for, as your race will last anywhere from 1-17 hours depending on the type of triathlon it is. My tip for proper fueling? Eat a giant breakfast from Waffle House right before your next race. If you do that, I can guarantee you’ll get second in your age group, walk for 18 seconds during the last 3 minutes of your run and watch the person who gets first jog right by you. Nailed it. But in all seriousness nutrition is different for everyone, so you’ll need to find what works best for you. Do your research, try different methods, and practice them during your long swims, runs, and bikes of your training.

Preparing To Be Unprepared

With it being peak triathlon season we have a ton of clients that keep asking the same question, “Why are my pool times so much faster than my open water times?” To start, there is no “right” answer, and the exact reasoning varies from person to person. But that being said, there are a few factors that you have zero control over and that affect everyone - even the most experienced swimmers - that I wanted to go over. 

The most important thing to always keep in mind is that you can never be 100% prepared for an open water swim. Should I say that again? I think I should. You can NEVER be 100% prepared for an open swim. You just can’t. It’s literally impossible to prepare for all of the unknowns that go into an open water swimming environment. The preparation you can do? Prepare to be unprepared.


Conditions of the water will remain unknown until you show up and start to swim. Just because the water temperature was 76 at this time last year doesn’t mean it will be the same this year. You can read the reports on the chop/current until the minute your toes touch the water and they still might not be accurate. The number of participants fluctuates from race to race, and you can never be sure they’ll be competing at the times you may or may not have looked up online (don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, I know you snoop).

Practicing drills and training to up your endurance for these races are great ways to prepare yourself physically. I’m not saying to stop training or stop working on fixing the problem areas in your stroke, because those are things you CAN control. I’m saying no matter how prepared you are when you swim in the pool, you can never go into an open water race knowing exactly what’s going to happen.

There are countless factors that you can’t control, but that’s okay! You’ve put in the time, the sweat, the effort, and so many more things into your training to physically prepare as best you can. But all of that being said, you simply can’t prepare for the unknowns. Getting over this mentally can be very hard, but will definitely help give you peace of mind come race time.

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What you can do is be aware that there are always going to be unforeseen conditions. Storms that come out of nowhere, crazy water temperatures, and huge packs of people you can’t break away from during the swim. Keeping that in mind, and reminding yourself of it as you approach your big race, will be a big help mentally and keep you from being shocked if something unplanned happens come race day. All of these conditions cause your swim to change, and usually not in a good way. 

Even if you have perfect conditions, and everything goes to plan with how you prepared, your times still might be off. Why? More often than not a swimmer will unknowingly slow their cadence down when they hit the open water. There are plenty of underlying and subconscious fears competitors have when they get to the open water that they aren’t even aware of, which causes your body to slow down so you can steady your breath, keep your heart rate down, and avoid a panic attack. This is your body’s way of trying to protect you from the unknown. It’s hard to see that when it’s happening since you’re not in a controlled environment, but it’s something you can keep at the front of your mind during your next race. Remember to keep your cadence up and focus on competing, not just making it through, in the swim. 

That’s another factor to keep in mind: how lots of people - whether they know it or not - just do enough to make it through the swim, and “save up” for the bike and the run. That’s the easiest answer as to why your pool times don’t match up with your open water times. I know it’s a long race, and I’m sure people are worried about using up their energy or tiring themselves out on the first leg. But at the end of the day all three legs of a triathlon are a race, not just the bike and the run. So don’t forget to start competing when you hit the water, not when you leave it.

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The last thing that a lot of people during an open water swim is stop. You’re probably reading that thinking, “there’s no way I stop during a swim, what is she talking about.”  But stopping in the water doesn’t have to mean standing up or grabbing a kayak and completely pausing your progress. If you’re not used to a crowded swim, you’re probably spending a good chunk of time getting used to being touched by other swimmers. And the first few times it happens your body is going to react automatically by halting your movements and freezing up a bit. Which takes time to get back into your rhythm afterwards.

Another way people stop is when they’re sighting. This one is huge because most people - especially people new to open water - don’t realize they’re doing it, but will pick up their head far too much and keep it up far too long to completely focus on what’s in front of them. When this happens your lower body sinks, you lose your momentum, and you can even go from being vertical to horizontal if you spend long enough in this position. The time and energy it takes to get back into the proper position and get moving again might not seem like much when you’re in the act, but it eats up your swim time and adds up with each time this happens. 

Looking at these factors one at a time might not seem like they could do that much damage, but put them all together and it should start to make sense how your usual 1:27/per 100 pace in the pool comes out as 1:59/per 100 pace in the open water. 

Mental preparation is just as important as your physical training. So before your next race take some time to consider all of the things I talked about and keep reminding yourself of them leading up to the race. As one control freak to another, I know it’s hard to not have control over everything, but at least this gives you some mental readiness for what may, or may not, happen. 

Triangles Are Perfect For the Water

One of the reasons SwimBox was started was to help prevent injury from poor/improper technique. My husband, Dominic, had surgery on both of his shoulders in college due to swimming with improper technique. Because of these surgeries, he has limited range of motion and his stroke will never be the same. All of this could have been prevented by correcting his technique he was using during the catch and propulsive phase of his freestyle. So what does that mean for you, special reader you? We’re going to make sure YOU’RE swimming properly to prevent you from having this exact same surgery down the road.

Okay, Lissa, but what is this proper technique you speak so eloquently of? (stahhp it, you’re too good to me). And how can I work to achieve it? I’m so glad you asked! Today we’re going to focus on Triangle Drill and how it will help you make sure your technique is safe and correct. Excited? That’s what I thought.

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The purpose of Triangle Drill is to fine tune the movements your body is making during your catch and propulsive phase through to the finish. The most important thing to focus on during this drill is the movement of your SHOULD BLADES. Why? because in swimming your shoulder blades are an extension of your arms. They’re actually the base of your arms, and making sure they move properly during your freestyle is one of the key components to preventing injury and the inevitable surgeries that will follow.

Simply put, your want your shoulder blade to glide upwards toward your ear during your recovery, and downwards towards your back pocket (let’s pretend you’re swimming in jeans for a second) during your catch, propulsive phase, and finish. This movement of your shoulder blade prevents you from putting the force of these movements into your shoulder joint, which is when problems occur.

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SwimBox Swim Lessons Sterling SwimBox Swimming Lessons Fairfax SwimBox Arlington Swimming Lessons SwimBox

Start this drill by swimming on your stomach kicking gently, just enough to keep you at the surface. Next, bring your arms in front of your body about shoulder width apart, about 4-6 inches below the surface of the water, and slowly bring them together to form a triangle with your thumbs and pointer fingers. Take a look at the above images to see how you want to set your arms/hands up to being this section of the drill.

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SwimBox Swim Lessons Sterling SwimBox Swimming Lessons Fairfax SwimBox Arlington Swimming Lessons SwimBox

Hold this position and mentally prepare yourself to focus on your shoulder blade movement - sliding down toward your (imaginary) back pocket - through your propulsive phase and your finish. It might take you some time to make this movement happen easily, but that’s okay! These changes take time and repetition, and this drill is meant to be moved through very slowly. Take your time!

The last thing to keep in mind? During your finish, make sure your hands feather out away from your body in order to fully maintain your paddle for as long as possible. Keep in mind, your hands will be pulled into your body from the force of your rotation while swimming, so you’ll need to really focus on this movement when first implementing it.

Make sure you watch our instructional drill video to see everything in action before trying it out in the pool!

Building Strength Outside of the Water

Building strength as a swimmer is a tough one. You would think that swimming 1.5-3 hours a day, six days a week, for months on end, would help make you stronger. But no, it doesn’t. Yes, it definitely helps you build and maintain your level of endurance/aerobic capacity, but help you gain strength it does not (crossing my fingers there’s at least one Star Wars fan out there). 

So how do you go about building up your strength to benefit your swims? Dryland. Dryland, for all of you non-I’ve been swimming since I was six years old swimmers out there, is just a term that some swim coach came up with at some point in time that refers to exercises/workouts on land. Things like plyometrics, static holds, body weight exercises, and weight lifting have all been referred to as dryland by my coaches throughout the years.

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I find a good mix of pretty much any kind of those things you like will be beneficial in the pool. That being said, this year I’ve really fallen in love with using the Vasa Trainer SwimErg to help me strengthen my arms to get a more efficient and powerful propulsive phase in the water. If you don’t have a SwimErg, any rack machine with a cable pulldown at your local gym comes in at a close second. You’ll want to fix the cable pull down to be set as high up as it allows, stand below it, and practice your catch and propulsive phase. Start with 5 lbs just to get the hang of the movement, and work your way up from there. While doing this exercise it’s extremely important to make sure you’re allowing your shoulder blade to glide up and down properly to avoid injuring your shoulder joint. You want to make sure you shoulder blade is gliding upwards as you set yourself up to catch, and gliding downwards as you set your catch and pull down.

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SwimBox Swim Lessons Sterling SwimBox Arlington SwimBox Swim Lessons Fairfax Swim Coach Swimming Lessons Sterling

One way to help keep this motion from putting the power into your shoulder joint? Keep your elbow from dropping in to your side. It’s the same way I’m always nagging on you about keeping your elbow forward and up in the water to allow you to create your paddle, just a different way of thinking about it since you’re vertical for this exercise.

Keep in mind, you’re going to be moving less weight in the water because of buoyancy. This is why dryland is SO IMPORTANT to gaining strength. You can never get as strong in the the water as you can on land!

The Hip Bone's Connected to the...Arm Bone?

One of my mom’s favorite things to say about someone’s swimming has always been, “it’s so graceful and effortless.” That was her highest praise in terms of the swimming world, and still something I notice in our clients when they really start to get the connected movements of the strokes down. Seem like an odd compliment? Maybe, but what is a common misconception in swimming is that it’s made up of a ton of small pieces that aren’t really connected to each other. However, that’s just not the case. Each movement you make in the water is connected to another movement. And those movements rely on each other to be performed properly. So if one of them is done incorrectly, it negatively affects the other, causing problems with even more movements. This is why the graceful and effortless swimmers are usually the faster ones too.

Swimming is sort of like a house of cards. Except that your body is the cards and the sturdy table you’re building on just so happens to be a large body of water that has a mind of its own. Easy, right? No way could it be hard to get things right in those environments…

Unfortunately, easy is the last word I would use to describe it. Especially when it comes to writing about and describing movements in words on paper. But to keep it from getting too down in the weeds and potentially mind numbing (yes, I said it, I know this stuff can cause your eyes to glaze over as you start daydreaming about that candy bar in your desk drawer you have marked for your afternoon snack), I’m only going to touch on a couple examples.

Swimming requires a ton of sequencing of muscles firing in order for full efficiency to be achieved. It’s not as easy as saying, “keep your core engaged and you’ll be okay.” The core needs to constantly be reacting to balance changes as you move through the water.

How is that achieved? Through cross body connections.

One of the cues that our clients have been focusing on lately is that as they pull with their right arm, and their right hip is rotating up towards the surface, the LEFT obliques are activated to provide stability and balance. Thinking about this connection is next to impossible during a race, but it’s perfect to focus on when doing drill work during practices. Let’s take One-Arm Freestyle with your Inactive Arm Down as an example. This cue is perfect to be mindful of during this drill, as you’ll actually be able to focus and feel the connection I’m describing. Thinking about certain cues, like this one, during drill work helps you better mentally process the movements and feelings you’re looking for during your swims.

Another example of a cross body connection is your rotation. In swimming, the pulling arm works as an anchor point, which is why it’s SO important to set an early catch. Which is difficult! I’m still working on this to this day (maybe another 30 years of swimming and I’ll finally get the hang of it). But it’s also incredibly important to know the reasoning behind your movements.

As your anchor is set and starts to push back against the water, your opposite hips starts to rotate downward. This connection is fairly easy to find when you aren’t breathing, but during the breath it becomes a bit harder. If you can feel this connection without breathing, it helps to learn good timing of the breath. Once that connection is learned, the inhale of the breath occurs, then as the head is rotating back into the water, the anchor starts to press against the water and then your hip should rotate downward. Say that five times fast! ….No really, I’ll wait.

See what I mean about mind numbing? Hopefully I avoided that, but I know this stuff can be tough to read. I find I have to rewrite these technique based posts 3-4 times to make sure what I’m writing is actually making sense, and even still it’s hard for me to understand sometimes (just don’t tell my husband).