Swimming in the Open Water

“Dear coach, I have been participating in triathlons for a while and I’m starting to feel like my swim has plateaued. I also find when I get into the open water (training or racing) my stroke falls apart, especially in rough conditions. What can I include in my training to become a better open water swimmer and not feel like I am just being tossed around in the rough conditions?”

Open water swimming is very different to the pool swimming, mainly because of two factors:

  • The need to navigate, sight etc.
  • The forces that you need to work against – waves, swell, current and other swimmers.

Let’s take a look at what can you do to become a stronger open water swimmer.

The use of a band

The band, which goes around your ankles while you swim, is usually made out of a car or bike tyre that has been cut into pieces and tied together.

Its purpose is to force you to adopt a quicker stroke rate and higher arm turnover. It also teaches you that having some core strength is important rather than wasting energy kicking – it helps you to learn to keep your legs closer to the surface of the water. A band also quickly identifies where your weaknesses are in your stroke technique. Swimmers that do not have a good catch and then pull, through the water, tend to not get very far with a lot of effort.

Three Tips for Swimming with a Band

  1. Keep your head down and eyes on the black line. This will allow the lower part of your body – your hips and legs – to sit closer to the surface of the water.
  2. Allow a dolphin or a two-beat kick and engage your core to once again assist with keeping your lower body near the surface.
  3. As soon as the hand enters the water, keep your fingertips down and start the pull using the hand and forearm.

When you first start swimming with a band, you will feel like you are drowning. Part of the process is working through what you need to do to feel that your body position is right and you are pulling through the water efficiently.

The benefit of swimming with a band helps you to naturally increase your arm turnover. Other tools that can be used to build strength in a similar manner are parachutes, paddles and pull buoys. A great tip for beginners is to use a pull buoy and band before swimming with band alone. This reduces the load on the shoulders. Another part of the puzzle is making sure you have a clean strong catch – this is a critical part of the stroke where you set the arm up ready to pull through the water.

Improving the catch portion of your stroke is all about feeling the resistance of the water against your hands and forearms; we want the body to accelerate forward so if you engage the water and push it back you will move quickly through the water. If you get this part of the stroke right, the faster you can push your hands back, the faster you will go without having to rush your stroke.

Your catch is the very first part of your stroke under the water. When thinking about the first thing your hand does under the water, focus on pushing your elbow out to the side slightly, keeping your fingertips down. Then you can push your hand and forearm down to get that high elbow. Think: ‘reaching over a barrel’. From here you can press your arm back under the body, hopefully feeling resistance against your forearm and pushing from your latissimus dorsi muscle in your back.

Using paddles is one way to practise this – not only do you get a better visual check of what you are doing but also if your hand twists underwater or you your elbow drops and it is lower than your hand, the paddle is likely to come off. So, using paddles not only can you work on increasing power but you can reinforce good technique as well.

Example set
Start with swimming 25 seconds with 10-second rest recovery.
Then – 
4x (3x 25m hard, 1x 25m easy) – a total of 12x 25m. As you start to feel stronger increase this to 12x 50m
The set: 
10x 50m (10 sec rest)

First and sixth – 12.5m fast/37.5m easy

Second and seventh – 25m fast/25m easy
Third and eighth – 37.5m fast/12.5m easy
Fourth and ninth – 50m fast

Fifth and 10th – 50m easy

Example set
4 x 50m as: easy freestyle (FC); with 10seconds rest between intervals (RI)
4 x 50m as: choice of kick, no float (focus on good body position); 10seconds RI
4 x 50, as: descend 1-4 with the fastest above race-pace/effort; 15secs RI
Main session
8 x 50m as: steady FC, 4 with paddles,
4 without – aim for the same time; 15secs RI
50m easy backstroke

4 x 100m as: steady FC, 2 with paddles,
2 without – aim for the same pace; 15secs RI

50m easy backstroke

2 x 200m as: steady FC, 1 with paddles,
1 without – aim for the same pace; 20secs RI

50m easy backstroke

6 x 100m as: alternate 100m individual medley (fly/back/breast/FC) and 100m FC; 20secs RI

200m of mixed strokes with at least 50m non-FC


Julie Tedde

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