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6 open-water swimming skills to practise in the pool

We explain 6 key open-water swimming skills that you can practise in the pool over the winter so you are confident and flying come race-day

Just because you’re in the pool, it doesn’t mean you’re limited to lengths and can completely forget about the skills needed for the open water and race season.

Many triathletes’ biggest race-day fears revolve around the unique challenges an open-water triathlon presents – for example, swimming in close proximity to others, drafting, breathing to suit the conditions (e.g. waves at your ‘preferred’ side), turning around a buoy and sighting so as not to get lost.

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Fortuitously, however, all these skills can be practised in the pool as we demonstrate on the facing page. If you can,  always use the pool when it’s at its quietest, as you’re more likely to get a lane to yourself thereby ensuring plenty of room for completing all the various positions!

Ideally, team up with a few other triathletes or swimmers so you can spend time on group swimming and drafting, as well as practising deep-water starts. But don’t worry if that’s not an option for you as many other skills, such as bilateral breathing, sighting and turning, can also be incorporated into your solo sessions. Include a few skill lengths each time you swim and race season will seem much less daunting! 

1. Drafting 

Drafting is easy to practise in the pool – if you have ownership of the lane! It’s not something you can do in a public pool unless you and your friends are the only ones in the lane. You can practise drafting two or even three abreast, encouraging you to get really close to the other swimmers and take it in turns at the lead. 

Drafting can be practised in three different positions – you can sit right on someone’s feet, level with someone’s hips or get really close and try to swim level with their shoulder. If you’ve never done it before, keep the effort low and relaxed and just get used to finding a good position to hold relative to the lead swimmer. As you get more confident you can increase the pace – and hopefully feel the benefits of the extra speed.

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2. Sighting

Sighting is easy to practise in the pool but make sure you focus on keeping your head still and looking at where you’re going. Just because you have everything to help keep you in a straight line in the pool doesn’t mean you can switch off these things – as otherwise you won’t gain from the drills once you go back to open water! Try swimming lengths with your head down for five strokes and then with your head up for five. Then swim lengths with your head down for three strokes and up for three. 

The idea is to practise moving your head up and back down into a rhythm as quickly and smoothly as possible without too much disruption to your forward movement. If you’re new to it all, my preference is to push your chin straight forward to sight – and then drop straight back down. As you get more adept, you can make the sighting action a part of your breath, where you sight, then turn your head into your normal breathing pattern.

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3. Group Swimming

Swimming in a group can be a real challenge, especially if it’s something that you’re not used to. But while simple enough in a normal lane, this isn’t something you could do in a public session so easily! Swimming two or even three across the lane you can get used to working in close proximity to other athletes, possibly bumping into each other a bit but always focusing on your own stroke and movements. This will help make sure that when you come to race in the summer you won’t be worrying about apologising to people you might knock in to! If you swim as a three, rotate through who’s in the middle so that you all get a chance to feel what it’s like in different positions. You may find you’re more comfortable on a particular side, which is useful to know come race season! 

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4. Breathing

Breathing bilaterally (i.e. alternately to both sides) is not a necessity. But breathing in both directions is a very useful skill, especially for open-water swimming as waves, wind, rain or bright sunshine can all prevent you from breathing to your favoured side.

A really good way of practising breathing to both sides is getting comfortable doing side kick in both directions. By being comfortable on both sides, you then get more comfortable turning your head smoothly to the side without rushing. A good focus is to think about turning your chin toward your shoulder. From here you can build up to doing six kicks to one pull (6-1-6), adding the focus on a smooth breath with the body roll in each stroke.

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5. Turning

Turning in the pool requires wide lanes, so if you have the opportunity it might be good to swim in double lanes. You can practise these turns by basically not touching the walls at the end of each length! For this basic turn, you could just bend your arms and body to swim around the end of the lane in a simple U-shape – although this can be quite cumbersome and feel like the turning circle of an oil tanker! 

Alternatively you could do a surf turn, where your inside arm (e.g. if you’re turning right, then your right arm) stays stretched out in front and ‘surfs’ the water while your outer arm does short choppy strokes to pull you round
the corner. 

The final option – and my favourite for tight corners – is to do a corkscrew turn. This involves taking your last stroke with your inside arm, then rolling onto your back (towards the turn point) and taking a backstroke pull. Finally you take a normal freestyle pull and roll onto your front, and swim away from the turn point. Playing around with
these different options will allow you to decide what
works best for you.

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6. Deep-water start

Because the start of the race is usually the one thing many people fear – or at least feel uncomfortable about – it’s a good thing to practise. A good start can give you space and time to stay clear of people, and even keep you away from any melée. Similar to the turning practise (above), this is an easy skill to rehearse.

This can work really well if you’re doing short fast efforts. A couple of metres from the wall, lie flat on your front kicking your legs gently to keep them afloat and scull with your hands out in front to stop you moving forwards (as pictured below). When someone shouts go or you’re ready to start, give your legs a hard kick and get pulling with your arms, and you should get moving forward pretty quickly. You can practise this against friends or club mates, over short five or 10m sprints, or even over full lengths.

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