This is a topical and often asked question. Many times after races, triathletes are perplexed as to why their pool times are not reflected in open water. On digging deeper, especially if they are wearing a GPS device, we find that they are able to swim the same pace but that they have done so over a longer distance. This is because they are not following a straight line and that is generally a result of not sighting often enough.
Another problem is pacing. It’s easy to get the right pace in a pool because the swimmer has tangible measures every 25 or 50m. To replicate this in open water requires a really good sense of perceived effort, perhaps relating breathing pattern to swim velocity as there is no clock to refer to (unless you stop to view your watch but that isn’t the best option for obvious reasons). These are the two areas I would focus on during pool training, sighting and pacing.
Sighting – In open water I think that 9 strokes is the maximum one should perform without a sighting stroke. Ideally, aim for every 5-6 strokes. Firstly include some specific drill sets during your warm up period. In the pool, 6-8 x 25/50m with a head up stroke every 3-4 strokes. Alternatively, 6 strokes head up followed by 6 strokes normal. It’s important to develop this habit. In subsequent conditioning sets, remind yourself to perform a head up breath every 6 strokes throughout your session.
Pacing – Your pace and therefore your effort will vary depending upon your race distance. What is important is to get a real sense of your goal race pace. Then include regular sets where you hold this pace for the entire number of reps. For example, let’s say you have a goal to swim the 1500m of a standard distance event in 25 minutes. This is a pace of 1m40s (25 x 60s = 1500/15 = 100s = 1m40s). In the pool you could try the following sets:
15 x 100m holding 1m40s with 5s recovery
7 x 200 in 3m20s with a 10s recovery
5 x 300 in 5mins with 15s recovery
3 x 500 in 8m20s with 20s recovery
2 x 750 in 12m30s with 30s recovery
During these sets pay particular attention to breathing patterns, fatigue levels, etc. Try to avoid looking at the clock until you have finished the rep. Record every rep and you will probably find that the early reps feel too easy, and that you have to really concentrate to hold your time in the last few.
Open water Swimming – It’s my view that triathletes place too much emphasis on open water swimming during training. Once per week should be enough and even then these sessions must be structured and based around your race goals. Take the opportunity to swim with others and feel how it is to draft efficiently. If you have a measured course then there is a perfect opportunity for you to practice your pacing, and of course during all OW swimming one must develop that habit of sighting every 5-6 strokes.
With patience and practice, swimmers can develop the ability to translate their pool performance into a solid open water swim.