Converting Pool Swims Sessions to Open Water

Pools have been opened and the weather is warming up (slowly) and athletes in many places are gaining access to venues for open-water swimming. You may be one the few hardy types (I have another term for you) that have already ventured into the lakes etc near you, some even swimming in 10 or below, but for those of you who are thinking about it as the weather warms up here’s some refresher tips for you.

Safety, safety safety

For most of us a lot of things have changed in the past few months, but one thing that hasn’t is the rules for safe open-water swimming. Firstly, do not swim in any body of water where swimming is not currently allowed. Check before you go. When you do go, make sure to swim with at least one partner or with at least one observer on shore, if there’s no Saftey crews/lifeguard on duty. Make sure also that you are aware of and prepared for the conditions (water temperature, currents, surf, etc.).

Stroke-Count cheat

An easy and low tech way to convert structured swim sets to open water involves counting your strokes. To make use of it, you need to know either your average strokes per minute (SPM) or your average strokes per length (that is, per 25 meters or per 50 meters, depending on your pool size). Some devices count strokes per minute automatically, so learning your stroke rate might be as easy as looking at data from past swims.

Suppose your stroke rate is 50 SPM and you wish to do a 300-meter interval at an intensity that equates to 2:00 per 100 meters. It will take you 6 minutes to complete this interval, or about (50 x 6 =) 300 strokes. Now all you have to do is count to 300!

Here’s another example: Let’s say you normally swim in a 25m pool and you know that it takes you 24 strokes to cover this distance. Using this number, you can calculate distances prescribed in any swim set you care to do.


Unless you are an elite or come from a swim back ground, the single most beneficial part of any pool swim you might do is the drill set. Athletes seldom bother with drills in open water, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from completing a more-or-less normal drill set in a lake, reservoir, or ocean. And, for that matter, there’s nothing stopping you from doing kick and pull sets as well!

Train to race

If you’re a triathlete, you seldom if ever compete in the pool. The vast majority of triathlon swims take place in open water. For this reason, open-water swim practice is a crucial part of your preparation for optimal race performance. And for this reason, having no choice but to train in open water is as much an opportunity as it is a limitation. Take advantage of this opportunity by working on open-water swim skills such as beach starts and exits, sighting, and bilateral breathing. Hitting the lake (or whatever) is also a chance to work through any fear you may have of swimming in open water and to get more comfortable in your wetsuit.

Don’t Overthink It

There is, of course, a limit to the degree to which swim workouts designed for the pool can be recreated in open water. Don’t waste energy worrying about this limit. Open-water swimming is still swimming, and as such it’s way better than not swimming at all, or any dryland swim substitute. Even if you skip the drills and intervals and just put in 20 or 30 minutes of steady Zone 2 freestyle, you’re moving in the right direction compared to where you probably were a few weeks ago.

Have fun and stay safe

Sisu Racing Triathlion Coach

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