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Competitive racing - open water

This is an excerpt from Science of Swimming Faster by Scott Riewald & Scott Rodeo.

Many open water swimmers train individually, but they race in competitions where they'll be in the water with dozens, if not hundreds, of other athletes. With the addition of the 10K marathon swim to the 2008 Beijing, 2012 London, 2016 Rio, and 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the competitiveness of open water swimming at all levels and ages has increased. Athletes are swimming faster than ever before, and their training is becoming more specific to reach their goals. Let's look at the factors that influence open water competition and the way in which swimmers can best prepare to excel in the open water.

To optimize performance in the open water, athletes should base their pool and open water training on the pyramid of open water success. These seven essentials, summarized in figure 24.4, include the optimal training concepts that can be implemented in preparing for races of all distances. The amount of time that athletes spend on each of the seven essentials depends on the time of year, where they are in their training cycle, the amount of time the swimmers are able to dedicate to training, and the athletes' personal goals and swimming background.
Pyramid of open water success.

Reprinted, by permission, from S. Munatones, 2011, Open water swimming (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics), 102.

Base training, speed training, and distance tolerance form the base of this open water training philosophy. A good base, or foundation, is essential for an athlete to excel in the open water. These fundamental concepts are rooted in the competitive pool training philosophies that have been used successfully for decades.

Race-specific training, skills training, and open water acclimatization are at the next level. These three fundamentals are less well known among coaches and athletes, but they are specific to open water swimming and equally important to incorporate in a training regimen.

Tactical knowledge is at the apex of the pyramid. Tactical knowledge refers to the knowledge and understanding of what to do in a dynamic environment in which the competitors, weather, and water conditions can change in a moment's notice. To perform well in any open water swim, a swimmer needs to anticipate, adapt, and respond to moves by the competition during the race as well as to changes in the natural environment. Tactical knowledge includes study of everything from the elements (tides, currents, and waves) to the tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of competitors. A swimmer can obtain and enhance tactical knowledge through observation, study, and race experience.

Simulating Racing Conditions

Coaches often overlook race-specific training. This training component can be used to simulate open water race situations in the pool and can help acclimate a swimmer to open water races in which physical contact, running in and out of the water, drafting, and positioning are part of racing. Some examples of simulated race condition exercises are described here.

Paceline Sets

Paceline sets are drills in the pool in which groups of swimmers (generally three to five) draft off one another, swimming behind the toes of the swimmers in front of them in one lane. In this way, the swimmers use drafting, much like a cycling peloton in the Tour de France. For 100-yard paceline sets, the leader of the group swims 100 yards at a set pace. The other swimmers follow closely behind. After 100 yards, the leader momentarily stops and waits at the side of the lane as the other swimmers continue swimming. The swimmers keep the same order as the new leader takes over and leads the group for the next 100 yards. This pattern is repeated until everyone leads the aquatic peloton for two to four rotations.

If each leader swims at a fairly good pace, the swimmers gain the following advantages:

  • Excellent aerobic workout
  • Practice drafting on the feet of teammates
  • Learning to conserve energy while drafting at a good pace
  • Increased awareness of other swimmers and practice at swimming in groups
  • Practice in increasing and decreasing pace in the middle of a training set

Pool Open Water (POW) Swims

Even without access to an open water swimming venue, open water racing can be replicated with pool open water (POW) training. POW is an easy-to-implement, educational, and enjoyable introduction to open water swimming that leads to increased confidence and helps acclimate pool swimmers to the open water environment.

POW can prepare swimmers for the rigors of swimming in the open water. POW enables a swimmer to practice the following:

  • Swimming without lane lines and without following the black lines on the bottom of the pool
  • Swimming in a pack of swimmers
  • Performing quick turns around buoys in traffic
  • Swimming without pushing off the pool walls
  • Executing defensive and offensive racing maneuvers and tactics
  • Positioning and drafting in various positions
  • Dealing with the physicality of swimming in close proximity to other swimmers

POW swimming is typically conducted after removing the lane lines and setting four turn buoys in the corners of the pool near the intersection of the backstroke flags and the outside lane lines. This arrangement creates a rectangular course that is parallel with the perimeter of the pool. If all lane lines cannot be removed because other swimmers are also using the pool, a few lane lines can be removed and two turn buoys can be set near the ends of the pool. This configuration reduces the footprint necessary to hold a POW workout and provides the same benefits.

After a POW course is set up, swimmers can practice left- and right-shoulder turns around the buoys (see figure 24.5) by alternately practicing in clockwise and counterclockwise directions. The ability to make turns in either direction is important because there are no standard open water courses or turns.
Pool open water (POW) training.

POW swims are useful training tools, but the following guidelines can make these training sessions even more beneficial:

  • When a group of swimmers becomes accustomed to POW swimming, add different configurations to the workouts. By doing X- or Z-shaped patterns in the pool, swimmers can become adept in doing any type of turn in the open water (see figure 24.6).
  • A triangular course allows swimmers to practice turns at various angles, not only 90-degree and 180-degree turns.
  • The coach can use a whistle and issue yellow and red penalty cards in practice to simulate what swimmers might experience in races.
  • Hold some POW sessions in a shallow pool to create more turbulence.
  • Practice onshore finishes by doing deck-ups at the end of each set.
  • If a large number of swimmers are participating, groups can be set off at different times to maximize the number of people using the course (see figure 24.7). For example, when the first swimmer of group 1 reaches the first turn buoy, the second group can start, enabling more swimmers to swim the course simultaneously.
  • To help swimmers become familiar with various positions that they may encounter in races, mix up the positions (e.g., inside or outside, front of the line or drafting, or boxed in) within any given POW set.
  • Swimmers need to remain alert for physical contact. Impeding or interfering with teammates is not the goal, but it will happen in POW workouts.
Pool open water training in a Z-pattern.
Starting a POW set.


Deck-up sets are another race-specific training drill for onshore finishes. In deck-up sets, the swimmers immediately pull themselves out of the pool after every swim and then dive back into the pool to start the next swim. This drill helps swimmers get accustomed to the rapid body position change (from horizontal to vertical) that occurs in an on-the-beach finish.

Learn more about Science of Swimming Faster.

More Excerpts From Science of Swimming Faster