Open-water swimming: How to get faster from the pros

Wondering how to get faster in open water? Pros Jack Rex Burnell and Jess Learmonth have this advice…

Credit: Remy Whiting

Once you’ve swum a few times in open water and have completed a few races, it’s time to think about the next step – speed. We sat down with GB’s best marathon open-water swimmer Jack Rex Burnell and super-fast GB triathlete Jess Learmonth to find out how they train for open water and find those marginal gains come race day:


220: Do you train all the time in open water, or more in the pool?

Jack: We obviously live in a very cold country unlike here in Mallorca, so unfortunately, 100 per cent of our training is done in the pool! We tailor it to open-water style pacings and things that relate to the open-water race, but we don’t do any training outdoors until we come out to a race or a training camp where we have access to open water. I think pool-based training does give us a bit of an advantage, though, because we’re usually the quickest swimmers in the last 400-500m and that comes from gaining that speed and technique in the pool and then applying that to the open water.

Jess: We mainly train in the pool too! I’m swimming five times a week in the winter and four times in the summer, so about 20-25km a week. We mix it up though – we’ll do one race-pace session, one threshold, an aerobic, and then a few sprints and stuff like that. From April, we’ll swim once a week outdoors.

220: What’s the key skill that you should practise for open water?

Jack: For me, you don’t need to worry about the fitness – swimming is swimming, whether you’re in the pool or in the open water! I guess the bit that’s different is being in close quarters with other swimmers. In training, you need to put yourself in that environment. If you’ve got a few mates, go down to the pool and do 3-4km swimming really close to each other and don’t be bothered or scared if you do knock each other or get hit. Obviously, nothing is malicious – it’s about getting used to the fact that you are going to get hit by others in the water.

Jess: We’ve started to bring in swim to bike practise with turbos on the side of the pool – that’s the bit that I find hard! Drafting is a really good one to practise, too. If you swim with a group, try doing 400m, for example, and take 100m each at the front while the others get used to swimming on feet.

220: What advice do you have for people training for a long swim?

Jack: I think again it’s about putting the miles in. Unfortunately, an easy route just doesn’t exist. I think for distances that are further than what you’re used to doing, you just have to go over and above what you have been doing to make yourself comfortable in that environment. If you’re training for something that’s 3.8km, then you need to be doing 6-7km swims in the pool to get used to doing that comfortably. There’s no magic wand, I’m afraid!

220: How about tips for Ironman swim marginal gains?

Jack: I think, for me, the tactics in terms of drafting and conserving energy are key. Yes, you can get fitter. I think that’s a given. Everyone’s looking for an edge in terms of equipment, but for me the next in importance would definitely be your position within the race. Some people do a lot of hard work unnecessarily in an open-water race. It could be they’re swimming just to the left of someone in clear water, but they’re not overtaking that person. Therefore a good move is to give up a couple of strokes and just sit in behind. It won’t cost you any time, but it will conserve you a lot of energy and then, if you do have extra energy, get rid of it at the end to surge ahead rather than wasting it in the middle of the swim.

220: What would your tips be to get faster in shorter swims, Jess?

Jess: I would say try working on your technique at least once a week. I still work on mine now as it’s really difficult to change your stroke! I focus on strength quite a lot too, so through the winter I use drag shorts to get strong in
the pool. Also, a thing that people don’t do that often is flexibility 
outside of the pool. Being from a swim background, I have a lot of range of movement, whereas those who have come to it later on in life are not as flexible in their upper body. Activities such as yoga can help open up your shoulders and increase your reach.

Jess Learmonth reveals her swim training secrets


220: Finally, how would you handle rough race day conditions?

Jack: I would change my stroke. It’s quite hard to practise but it’s something that you do have to adapt as trying to swim with a really smooth, high elbow and controlled stroke like you would do in the pool in really choppy water is not going to work, because the catch phase of the stroke is going to get caught by a wave! A much straighter arm recovery is a far more efficient way of swimming in those conditions, as it is about getting over the top of the water. The problem with it is that it is hard to train in the pool because it feels quite strange and also looks quite strange but there’s no reason why you can’t just give it a go every now and again and throw in a couple of 100s of straight-arm freestyling in there!

Jess: Keep an open mind when you go in – trying to relax is the main thing because as soon as you panic it makes it worse! We have some really choppy swims in our races and you’ve got to try to think to yourself ‘just relax’. It makes such a difference.


Thanks to Huub Design for arranging time with these athletes

How to use the pool to prepare for open water swimming