New to open water

Just signed up for my first open water event (5K) and wondering if anyone has tips on what to focus on while training in an indoor pool! I have about 5 months until the race but I'm in Chicago so it will be a while until I can train in the lake. I've heard higher stroke count and more pull sets but would appreciate any other advice of how to best structure my sets until I can get in the lake! 

  • A couple of suggestions.  (Disclaimer: as I have no idea what kind of training you do just now I'm assuming that your background is "traditional" pool workouts based on a variety of sets and strokes.) You are training for an hour plus swim so you may want to increase the number of longer swims and longer sets that you do.  For example, you may want to do an hour for distance as one of your workouts once every two weeks.  Or use sets like 4x1000 descending to build endurance at pace over the longer distances.  You might like to try speed variation sets like a 2000 swum as 100 moderate working on efficiency and relaxation alternating with 100 hard/race pace+.  Are you racing skins rather than wetsuit? If so, I would not ignore kicking.  Lake swimming is in fresh water so you will not have the benefit wetsuit or salt water buoyancy.  Having well conditioned legs and a reasonable kick will help prevent them from becoming a drag and keeping a flat efficient body position.  (In a wetsuit you get body position "for free" as it were)  You can DM me if you have questions that I can help with.

  • Thanks so much! Yes, my background is only traditional indoor races/training. Not planning on wearing a wetsuit, so good to know not to get too wrapped up in focusing on pulling. 

  • As Gdavis said, it is very helpful to do non-stop swims for the duration you think it will take you.  When training for 10Ks, I would do 2 hours non-stop swims.  I would also do sets like 80 x 100 with 10 secs rest, 40 x 200 with 20 secs, even 20 x 400 with 20 seconds rest.  All of these help your body get used to the non-stop activity.  Do one of these non-stop swims 1x/week until your swim.  Don't know how old you are, when I was 40 and doing this, I would target 150 heart rate.

    During your pool swims, start practicing lifting your head during a breath to look forward for sighting.  You don't want to do this alot as it is very tiring, but once every 20-30 strokes in an open water race is a good frequency.  Are you required to have a kayak or canoe escort?  if so, that changes some of the dynamic in this regard.

    Aside from training, it is helpful to be very comfortable breathing to either side - even if you are predominantly only one sided.  This is because, at some point, the waves are likely to keep you from taking a breath and being able to switch to the other side will help.  In a couple of races, the waves actually rolled me over.  if this race is in Lake Michigan and the swim is along the shore and out and back, you do not want to breath into the waves the entire race.

    Also, invariably, you are going to choke on water and want to dry heave.  It is an awful feeling, but can be done while you keep swimming.  Hard to practice this - just be aware it will happen.

    Depending on the number of people, the start and during the race could include a fair amount of incidental contact with other swimmers.  This can be unnerving, so find a way to get used to tight quarters.  When I coached open water, I would have 8-10 swimmers try to fit side-by-side across a 2 lane distance and swim together just to get used to the feeling.

    Good Luck!

  • Thank you for the response!! I'll work on incorporating longer and longer nonstop swims. I actually am a bit nervous for the volume of people, I've swum in very crowded conditions before but never in a race setting so I'm going to try and find some local groups to practice with if I can. 

    Definitely comfortable breathing on both sides so I'll try to get used to picking my head up as well. There should be canoes/kayaks at the race. 

  • Kay,

    A couple of additions:

    • Doing longer non-stop swims is even better if you can find a 50 meter pool.  Even if you only do it a couple of times each month, eliminating 2 turns for every 100 yards or so will improve the effectiveness of non-stop training.
    • The start of open water races is chaotic.  If you expect to  be one of the faster swimmers, position yourself away from the crowded center - off to the fringes.  Although it means swimming further, not having the elbows, hand, feet, and bodies disrupting your rhythm is an acceptable compromise.  If you are one of the slower swimmers, you can always let the main body go ahead by 20-30 seconds and then get started.  This allows the swimmers to spread out.  The downside to this: is you will inevitably catch people and have to navigate around them.
    • Unlike a pool where you can usually see a long way, your visibility will decrease to only a few feet.  If you can practice in some lakes beforehand, it will help.
    • Be prepared for hypothermia even on sunny days.  Two swim caps helps alot.  And, just in case, bring warm cloths and hot fluids to drink.  I always like hot chocolate for both the warmth and the energy.  Slight smile

    Good Luck.


  • Thank you so much! This is all great :) 

  • congrats on signing up for you first OW race! They are a blast. The other comments did a great job covering the major tips. 

  • I read through the whole thread and didn’t see that anyone mentioned hydrating and/or feeding. In a 5k you may not need to feed. But you should certainly be hydrating. Find out from the organizers what the rules are for your hydration/feed evolutions. If you will have a personal kayak escort, you may want to practice it a few times prior to the event. Good luck.


    • I have not done a 5k but I did a 3k and it was August and hot. I would fill a large stainless steel container halfway w ice then use coconut water. Take a few large swigs before you go in and all of it when you get out. June should not be too hot but the effort can really dehydrate you!

    Good luck