A Successful Transition from the Pool to Open Water


Poor visibility. Waves. Inconsistent temperatures.

Make no mistake about it: the transition from pools to open water presents a seemingly endless supply of challenges, whether you consider yourself a novice swimmer or a veteran.

By applying the following tactics—mimicking the conditions of open water swimming as you train in a swimming pool, developing relaxation techniques, visualizing success and receiving assistance from proficient swimmers—you can have fun during your next open water swimming experience.

Mimic the Conditions of Open Water Swimming as You Swim in a Pool

Close Your Eyes. Since natural water is often darker than swimming pool water, Renee Schneidewind, president of Max Multisport Coaching, believes “closed eye swimming,” as she terms it, in a swimming pool will simulate the sensation of limited vision in open water. Start off by swimming approximately half the length of the pool with your eyes closed, then add distance as you become more comfortable. As a safety precaution, remember to always have a partner with you whenever you swim with your eyes closed.

Remove Pool Lane Lines. Schneidewind recommends removing all lane lines from your swimming pool to better mimic the open water. Avoid pushing off of or resting against walls during your laps. After all, you won’t have an opportunity to take a break when you swim in open water.

Create Waves. “Get a group of people together in the pool and use kickboards or other items to make waves in the pool as you swim past them,” Schneidewind says. This simple yet effective method will help you prepare for the choppiness of open water.

Practice Sighting Mechanics. Craig Strong, a Precision Multisport swimming coach, recommends preparing for one of the biggest challenges of open water swimming, navigation, while you are in a pool. “When you swim in open water, you’ll obviously need to look up to see where you are going,” he says. “This comes at a significant price though. When you raise your head, your pace slows down a bit and you lose energy faster.

“To swim efficiently, you must raise your head as seldom as possible, for a small duration of time, while still remaining on course. Like so much else, it takes practice to get this right.” Strong advises you to practice sighting mechanics by looking for objects outside the pool when you swim, such as lifeguard stands and pace clocks.

Swim with a Large Group. “In open water, contact with people is generally inevitable,” Darryl Tyndorf, an Experience Triathlon swimming coach, says. “You may accidentally be kicked, punched or pulled backwards by your ankles.” To prepare for this type of contact, Tyndorf recommends that you assemble a large group of people at the deep end of a pool and swim very close to them, mimicking the starts of most open water swims.

Transition to Open Water Calmly and Confidently

“Once you actually transition from the pool to open water, you will need to remain calm and maintain control of your reactions to whatever transpires in the water,” Schneidewind says. “Far too often, I see swimmers or triathletes panic when they first swim in open water. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to remain level-headed.”

Relaxation is Essential. Strong advises you to develop and continuously practice relaxation techniques once you transition to open water. “Cold water usually makes you breathe rapidly, which can produce anxiety,” he says. “Relaxation is essential for fighting debilitating anxiety, keeping your muscles loose and performing optimally.”

Breathe Differently. In a swimming pool, you should rotate your head as little as possible. However, when you are in open water, you need to turn your head more, look to the sky and tuck your chin into your shoulder. “Exhale ‘face in’ and inhale ‘face out,’” Strong says. “Blow all of your air prior to turning your head to breathe, and then return your head to an in-line position with your spine as quickly as possible.”

Strong also recommends developing the ability to breathe to both sides to help you perform at your highest level while keeping injuries at bay by building muscle in both shoulders.

Prepare for Extra Length. When you finally decide to compete in a triathlon or an open water competition, bear in mind that you will swim farther than the established course distance.

“Collisions, sighting, and, at times, swimming off-course will add extra length to your swim,” Strong says. “You can help ease the length a bit though by knowing where buoys and other landmarks are in advance of the race. It will be much easier for you to sight if you have a sense of a landmark’s position in advance.”

Visualize Success. “Confidence is key for you to succeed in open water,” Strong continues. “Train your body and mind for success by focusing on the process rather than the outcome as you visualize your upcoming open water competition.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

“Swimming isn’t something that is natural for us, so, from time to time, you may have some fears about transitioning to open water. But this fear needs to be dealt with head on,” Schneidewind says.

To overcome your fears, consider receiving assistance from outside sources, especially experienced swimmers.

Hire a Coach. “A coach can explain and teach the techniques that alleviate fears and build confidence,” Tyndorf says. “They can not only help you physically prepare for open water swimming, but mentally prepare as well.”

Participate in Sessions and Clinics. Since the greater Chicago area offers a wide range of training groups to choose from, you can likely find a swimming clinic or session that fits your abilities, regardless of your level of experience. “You should especially invest in stroke analysis or clinics, as slight corrections in your form will result in more efficient strokes that you can rely on during competitions,” Tyndorf says.

Join a Local Masters Swimming Committee. In addition, Tyndorf advises you to slowly ease into your transition from pools to open water within a controlled environment, such as a Local Masters Swimming Committee, a benefit of becoming a member of the non-profit U.S. Masters Swimming organization.

“You will build confidence as you work with a group of like-minded swimmers who are focused on improving their skillsets,” Tyndorf says. “Your techniques and endurance will improve as a result, as you will be better prepared for each of the obstacles you encounter the next time you swim in the open water.”