Austin is an incredible city for training and racing in open water. We have a number of awesome venues, masters teams, triathlon training groups, and even open-water training groups that provide a safe environment to practice.
We are also host to a variety of open water races. Unfortunately, it can be daunting to prepare for and participate in one.
Interval training, pull and kick sets, and technique work are all valuable exercises to help you prepare for a long race distance, but getting in and churning out a straight swim that lets your mind and body know what they’re capable of is also incredibly valuable.
In your daily training, use goal setting to help you get to the point where you know you can handle the duration and the distance. Here are a few different ways you might accomplish that.
Training the duration
Get yourself out in the open water, whether for fun or for racing. Pure Austin’s Splash-n-Dash series and the Colin's Hope Got2Swim events are great ways to safely get in an open water race environment and maybe find some external motivation from the folks around you.
Measure your open water swims by time, not necessarily distance. Head down to Barton Springs or Pure Austin’s Quarry Lake and simply swim for whatever your goal time is. For example: You want to swim the 2.4-mile Ironman swim in 1:15. As your preparation, swim for an hour and 15 minutes at a steady, moderate pace every few weeks or once a month. Swimming consistently at the same pace will not help you improve your speed, so it is important to have a variety of other training methods for other workouts, but just knowing you can swim without a break for 1:15 will give you confidence.
In my opinion, the most valuable way to train for a goal time is to train at race pace. You need to train your body to manage the pace that you want to hold across the duration of your swim event. Use short rest intervals while holding your goal pace (for example, 75m, 100m, 150m, or even 200m on rest intervals of 10–15 seconds). Build up the distances and the number of repeats as you improve.
Another set that you could use to track your progress could be as follows:
300m at smooth/moderate effort on rest at 20–30 seconds
6 x 50m at race pace on R11:05; R2 on 1:00; R3 on 55 seconds (take an extra 30–60 seconds between rounds)
It is important to know what race pace you want to hold and what it feels like to hold it, and using a tempo trainer can help you with this. The Finis Tempo Trainer is one of my favorite training tools. Get an idea of your best stroke rate range through previous races, successful sets in training, or by comparing to what skilled swimmers are holding. Then, learn to train at that rate. This is similar to holding a specific cadence range on the bike. Set your tempo trainer to the cadence you want to hold, put it in your swim cap, and then synchronize your hand-hits to the device’s beeping for your own personal metronome.
I also recommend starting with shorter distances first; train very short distances at faster-than-goal tempo so that your goal tempo feels more comfortable when you return to it. These sets are the type of work you will primarily get at a masters workout, and that work is crucial for improving your swim speed. You should keep track of your progress in a logbook so you can celebrate your improvements.
Training the distance
Find a long course (50m) pool or an open water venue so you are away from walls and can get used to swimming without a break for longer.
Do a rehearsal time trial of your exact race distance to see where you are, time-wise. It would be ideal to get splits at this time trial so you can track where your time might be falling off, whether you can negative split the distance, or if you will maintain speed the entire way. Is there a pace clock nearby? If so, use it to catch a glimpse of your splits throughout the distance (and by splits, I mean something like dividing your overall distance into quarters).
Some workout suggestions are to swim 3000m for time and use the average as a threshold base for building training sets. You can also create sets that build in distance and require you to “descend” (get faster over the course of the workout or swim).
1 x 500m on 30 seconds rest
1 x 1000m on 30 seconds rest
1 x 1500m, descending your effort (so your pace on the 1500m is faster than the 500m and the 1000m). As you get stronger and more confident, continue to make the distances longer.
1000m, 1000m, 1500m
1000m, 1500m, 1500m
3 x 1500m
When you do break up a long distance into segments, try using short rest intervals so that your body doesn’t have time to fully recover. For your rest intervals, you can use time (e.g. 5–10 seconds) or breaths. For example: Rest for four to six full, deep breaths between 500m. This will encourage you to slow down your breathing and relax at the wall. When you know you are only getting a specific number of breaths rather than a certain amount of time, you are more likely to avoid quick, shallow breathing. Staying away from a time interval also takes the stress of making the interval out of the equation. The athlete-turned-triathlete who doesn’t have a swimming background may really like this tactic; you can also use it when getting back into training after a longer break.
I would, of course, be remiss if I did not remind you that efficient technique is equally as important a proponent of focused technical swimming. If you are not setting up a stroke that propels you forward, you will likely be wasting a lot of valuable energy in the water.
Enjoy your time in the open water, and please do it safely.