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How to build skills practice into an open water training swim

Alec Richardson is a year-round open water swimmer and coach who does most of his training in Clevedon Marine Lake but throws himself into the sea as often as family life and the tides of the Bristol Channel will allow him.

Here, Alec provides some tips on how to build skills practice into an open water training swim.

Managing your training in a pool is easy. Conditions are predictable (save the ever-tricky issue of other lane users), and you have a set length with natural breaks available.

It’s easy to split it into sections and have a list of what you are going to do waiting for you at the end of the pool.

Either you work to this “set”, or you just plough up and down getting the distance in – or somewhere in between.

And there is endless advice available for you on this, countless sources of sets or programmes to sign up to.

Then you spot a window in your busy schedule and head outdoors to your nearest open water venue.

Maybe you have an hour to swim, but how do you fill it for it to be effective? Not so easy to print off a set and work to it like you would in a pool.

But there are still skills to be worked on, and the open water environment is where you should be doing it.

In the absence of a laminated print-out to take your instructions from, you need to train your brain to cycle through your skills, have a way of thinking and a rhythm to your swim which naturally incorporates opportunities to practice.

Get this right and you can adapt to get the best value out of your swim in different venues and in a variety of conditions.

Below is an example of how you might approach a training swim (as close as you’ll get to a “set” for open water).

Assess the venue

Is there a natural “lap”?

  1. Yes, about 700m. Then try doing four laps. Lap 1 – skills. Lap 2 – pace variation. Lap 3 – skills. Lap 4 – steady rhythm.
  2. No, but there’s plenty of space – pick landmarks or a direction and split your time into four 15 minute sections as above.

Is the course marked out with buoys?

  1. Yes, roughly every 80m to 100m – great, use that as natural breaks between skills – let’s call each one a “section”.
  2. No – switch skill focus every 100 strokes or so (you might occasionally lose count, but that’s no big deal).

How busy is it?

  1. Busy – fabulous, use other swimmers for the pace variation section, and maybe get a bit of drafting practice in.
  2. Quiet – fabulous, full focus on what you want to work on.

What are the conditions?

  1. Choppy and cold – great, work on acclimatising, settling and rough-water skills early in the session.
  2. Calm and balmy – great, perhaps get a bit of technique focus in there somewhere as well as the open water skills.

A suggested open water “set”

(Let’s assume you’re working with all the first options above).

Get in, relax, settle your breathing, get used to what the surface looks like from water level, which way the waves/chop are moving, where the sun is, how visible the buoys are.

Float on your front, face in and allow the waves and chop to lift and move you – remind yourself that you float and stay on the surface. (Don’t do this for too long, or someone will try to rescue you!)

Lap 1 – SKILLS

  1. Concentrate on breathing out steadily underwater, every three strokes, fully exhaling.
  2. Breathing drill – breathe on two, three, four, five, then six strokes, but always breathing out during the first two strokes. This gets you concentrating and reminds you that you are in control of your breathing.
  3. Sighting – practice lifting your head just enough to get your goggles out of the water and not allowing your legs to drop. Experiment with sighting separated from breathing as it’s choppy.
  4. Rotation – focus on your recovering shoulder being high out of the water and using your hips to drive rotation.
  5. Arm recovery – keep it relaxed, notice how it feels if a wave slaps your arm – if you’re tense, that will tire shoulder muscles quickly.
  6. Sighting again – the sun may well be in your eyes this time.
  7. Leg kick – keep it light and narrow, pointed toes, just enough effort to keep your legs high in the water. Don’t be too vigorous and tire yourself.
  8. Turns – at the next buoy, practice your turn – build pace into the buoy then have a crack at whatever type of turn you like most (corkscrew/superman/wide-arm). Do a 90 degree turn even if it isn’t needed to follow the course.


  • Sections 1 to 4 – use easy/steady/fast/sprint to do each section progressively faster than the previous one. Try to sense where in that you feel at your most efficient.
  • Sections 5 to 8 – increase the pace within each section through easy/steady/fast/sprint.

(If it’s busy, this may prove tricky, in which case pick different swimmers to try to pace alongside for a while).

Lap 3 – SKILLS

  1. Windmill arms – take the pressure off your shoulders by doing a section of overhead, straight-arm recovery (your arm should exit the water straight, with your palm facing upwards and pass directly over your head then enter the water straight out ahead of you, almost slapping the surface).
  2. Turns – if it’s safe to do so, go the other way around the next buoy, all the way around.

Sections 3 to 8 – as above for Lap 1.


Think back to your pace variation lap, try to find the speed which feels most efficient and get a long, steady lap in.

Tune in to the finer details of what you are doing like your catch, your finger position on hand entry, timing of your breathing. Get in the zone.

For more tips from Alec read: