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Open Water Swim Drills and 3 Great Workouts

Now that many of USAT and Ironman races are happening this fall, athletes are making their way back into the water. It's been several months since many have swam and I have been easing my athletes back into the water with low volume and low intensity swim workouts for the first few weeks. Summer is here and the open water awaits for athletes to practice their open water swims. So I put together a list of my favorite open water swim drills and incorporated them into 3 Open Water Swim Workouts. I hope you find these useful and incorporate these drills and workouts into your next open water swim!

Open Water Swim Drills

Floating and Sculling: take this time to get used to having no lane markers, no wall, and no visibility of the bottom. Practice floating on your back with gentle sculling; practice side stroking and easy breast stroking. Practice treading water for 1-2 minutes then coming to a horizontal position. Check out the visibility with your goggles on both under water and with your head up.

Swim Straight Drill: swim with your eyes closed for about 10-20 strokes and see where you end up. It’s helpful if someone on the land can watch you do this to see if you veer to the left or to the right. If’ you’re not swimming straight, remind yourself to sight more often- about every 3-5 strokes.

Sighting Drill: Choose your landmarks ahead of time- preferably something other than the buoy such as a building, a tree, or a taller structure. Your goggles are just barely above the waterline in front of you when sighting. As you begin the right arm pull, instead of turning your head to breathe, you extend your neck forward looking ahead. The pushing down of your right hand against the water will hold your head up for a split second. Sighting is recommended every 6-8 strokes or every 3-4 if you have trouble with swimming straight.

Polo Drill: this is simply swimming with your head out of the water.

Swim Straight Drill: It helps to know which way you drift- you can easily find this out by swimming in a lane with closed eyes- open your eyes every few strokes and see where you’re at relative to the black line. Swimming straight on can save you a lot of unnecessary yardage and time in an Iron Distance swim.

Drafting: getting directly behind someone or on another swimmer's hip- this can keep you at your race pace without having to work so hard. I always tell my athletes to look for bubbles and don't swim so close that you are constantly hitting their feet. Don’t assume that the person you are drafting from is sighting well- you must do your own sighting.

Bilateral breathing: this is best practiced in the pool during warm up or with a few main sets- it feels awkward at first but so worth the effort. Bilateral breathing is great because often the buoys are to your left as well as right and it makes sighting in both directions easier.

Rounding the Buoy Drill: as you approach the buoy, breath on the side of the buoy, try to cut the turn as close as possible even if you have to use short quick strokes; or try doing a 360 degree turn with a few strokes of backstroke at the turn around.

Safety Swim Drill: this can be easy breast stroke, easy sculling, side stroke, or swimming easy with head out of water. This is your GO TO stroke if you are tired, having anxiety, or just need a few strokes of rest.

Wet Suit Drill: Practice getting out of the water and taking off your wetsuit in the least time possible. It helps to have someone time you on a stopwatch. As you run to the shore out of the lake or ocean, put your goggles on your head while unzipping the wetsuit to your waist. Run with the wetsuit at waist length until you get to T1. Practice pulling the suit down and stepping out of it quickly.

Workouts in the Open Water

A few safety tips before we start!

*Never swim alone- a small group is best

*If the water looks too choppy, the current is fast, or there is debris floating in the water, choose a better day to swim in the open water.

*Invest in a light weight bright colored swim buoy for added safety. You can get this here:

*Wear a wetsuit if temperatures permit;

*If possible, have a kayak in the water watching swimmers closely for safety.

Open Water Set #1

Set up a bright colored buoy about 100 yards away from the deck or beach


5 min easy warm up swim, finish at beach or dock


Single Arm Drill: practice swimming with one arm keeping ear close to bicep when you turn your head to breath; both shoulders should be rotating the same as you would with 2 arms.

Drafting Drill: get on another swimmers’ feet and trail them out to the buoy and back;

Sighting Drill: swim out to the buoy sighting every 6-8 strokes: swim back to the deck sighting every 3-4 strokes

Sculling drill: practice sculling forward to the buoy; sculling backwards on the way back.

Main Set:

1. Swim toward the buoy building speed as you go so your last 10 strokes you are at an all-out effort: swim back easy, rest 30 sec 2. Swim half way to the buoy at an all-out pace then slow down as you approach the buoy: Swim back easy, rest 30 sec 3. Swim using your Safety Stroke to the buoy: swim back easy, rest 30 sec

4. 5X Swim out to the buoy at your race pace/ swim back non-free, rest 15 sec

*REPEAT the above set if time permits

Cool down: 5 min easy freestyle or your choice

Open Water Set #2

Set up a bright colored buoy about 100 yards away from the deck or beach

Warm up: 5 min easy swim


1 Polo drill out (head out of water)/freestyle back

2. Sculling drill out/sculling backwards drill back

3. Sighting drill out (looking up every 6-8 strokes)/freestyle back

4. Bilateral breathing out (breath every 3 strokes)/freestyle back

Main Set:

8X to buoy and back: endurance pace swim focusing on sighting and swimming in a straight line.

Cool down: 5 min swimming easy and sculling

*Repeat this set 2-3X if time permits.

Open Water Set #3

Set up a bright colored buoy about 100 yards away from the deck or beach

Warm Up: 5 min Practice your swim start 10X as follows:

Beach Start: Run with high knees into the water;

In Water Start: Practice getting to horizontal position as quickly as possible from upright position;

Jump in Start: practice jumping in and getting to horizontal position as quickly as possible; then take a few strokes.


1. Singe arm drill R out to the buoy/single arm L coming back

2. Bilateral breathing drill: breath every 3 strokes out/every 5 or 7 on the way back

3. Drafting drill: swim in close contact with a few other swimmers-swim to the buoy and switch leaders on the way back

4. Safety Stroke: swim to the buoy and back practicing the stroke you will use if you get tired, anxious, or just need to regroup.

Main Set:

Do this 10X:

4 strokes sighting/10 strokes fast/10 strokes easy to the buoy/easy freestyle coming back

4 strokes sighting/10 strokes fast/ 10 strokes safety stroke/ easy freestyle coming back

5X swim to the buoy and back; practice rounding the buoy as smoothly as possible in close contact with other swimmers;

Cool down: 5 min easy swimming and sculling

Have you thought about working with a Certified Tri Coach? It is game changing for your race! I've helped many triathletes improve their race and I can help you too! Message me HERE for a FREE 15 minute call!

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