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Case Study: How to Teach Open-Water Swim Skills to Triathletes

Over my career, I learned how to teach triathletes to improve their swimming. I found that this method results in a significantly greater improvement in a shorter amount of time.

Triathletes starting their open-water swim portion of a race

In triathlon racing, the swim portion is typically done in open water instead of a pool. Yet in typical triathlon training, nearly all the swimming is done in a pool. The problem is successful swim technique looks very different in these two venues. Many factors separate a pool from an open-water race. First, there are roped-off lanes that provide relatively smooth water, even in a race. Second, there are no other competitors in the lane. Finally, the athlete doesn’t have to use landmarks to sight a straight path to the finish. All of this makes competitive pool swimming a relatively focused task for the athlete. 

When the triathlete races in open water, there are many challenging components that take a toll on performance—moderately to extremely rough water, fighting for position in the water with other athletes, and navigating a straight path around the course. It’s no wonder that most triathletes consider the swim leg of the event to be their weakness.  

The problem is compounded when swim coaches, who don’t have firsthand experience with triathlon or open-water swimming, teach triathletes to swim using a pool technique. Even worse, sometimes these coaches insist that this is the only way to swim effectively. 

Most slow-swimming triathletes come to believe that what is holding them back in the swim portion of the race is a need for greater “fitness,” which they interpret as a need for more fast-paced intervals in their pool workouts. Since this strategy doesn’t address their primary performance limiter (poor technique), they assume they are simply poor swimmers who are doomed to have slow swim splits.  

But even if they give some consideration to their swim technique, triathletes’ limited knowledge about swim skills often leads them to focus on the wrong thing. Many poor swimmers become fixated on minor movements that have little impact on speed and efficiency—such as holding the fingers open or closed, finishing the last couple of inches of the stroke, or kicking harder. While some of these “skills” may bring about improvement, there will be a very small return for the time invested in them.  

Rethinking the open water movement pattern 

If a triathlete understands the basic definition of endurance fitness in the context of sport science, they come to believe that, like running and cycling, they must focus on improving their swim aerobic capacity and anaerobic threshold. For most athletes this translates to more interval training. However, when it comes to open water swimming (and often the other sports as well), the missing component is efficient movement. In swimming, a lack of efficiency is the greatest cause of poor performance—after all, water presents a greater impediment to movement than air. This increases the importance of efficiency in the swim as compared with the other two sports.  

Consequently, the key to faster times for most slow-swimming triathletes is simple: Stop training harder and instead focus on improving open water swim skills. 

I came to understand this dilemma many years ago and it opened my eyes to what triathletes needed to do to become better, faster swimmers. I was holding a triathlon camp in Spain. On the first day I noticed that my assistant coach, Jim Vance, was teaching a technique I had never considered. As I thought more about what Jim was doing, it began to dawn on me that the pool-swimming technique I had been teaching was not helping my athletes improve. He was on to something.  

The basic discovery was that the campers needed to become better open water swimmers. This is what Jim was telling them. He was right. I began to study open water swimmers and quickly realized that their swim technique was considerably different from the common pool technique I had been teaching. Once I was able to take a deep dive into the fundamentals of open water swimming, I realized there were four skills used by open water swimmers that were distinctly different from pool swimming skills:  

  1. Posture 
  2. Direction 
  3. Length 
  4. Catch 

For best results, I would teach these four skills on separate days with an entire session devoted to each one. The time between sessions allows the new movement pattern to “sink in.” The repetition and practice on the pool deck, in the water, while swimming, and even by exaggerating the movement with a specific drill helps the athlete establish the new movement pattern. 

Skill 1: Posture

This skill involves swimming “on top” of the water with the head and hips evenly on the surface so as not to increase drag. Low hips are the warning sign of a swimmer with poor posture. Note that this skill is also required in pool swimming, but often overlooked in teaching. Open water swimming compounds the problem due to the need to sight for navigation. Many triathletes try to keep their eyes out of the water, which greatly increases drag. To maintain good posture in the water, triathletes must point their noses at the bottom of the pool or open water venue. This will bring the hips to the surface, greatly reducing drag. 

To optimize this skill, a triathlete needs to learn two associated skills for efficient navigation: 

1. How to roll their eyes up, as if trying to look over their goggles, and 

2. How to sight, briefly raising their head out of the water to check for landmarks and navigate. 

I start teaching the first skill on the pool deck. The athlete bends at the waist and practices the eye position while keeping their nose pointed down at the deck.  Then, for the second skill, we incorporate the sighting technique at the start of the stroke as the forearm pushes downward, lifting the head and shoulders out of the water briefly before returning immediately to a nose-down position. 

The triathlete will then do the same thing as they stand waist-deep in the water, bending over with their face below the surface. 

Next, the triathlete will swim a length of the pool using both techniques—nose down for two or three strokes, then a head-up or “polo” stroke to sight landmarks. These skills are rehearsed over several comfortably fast 25m intervals with long recoveries after each length. I will get video footage of the swimmer doing this drill with an underwater camera (in profile) to provide additional feedback on how they are doing at mastering this most basic skill. 

This first skill is easily and quickly mastered. But it’s also easy to forget once another skill is added, so continual reinforcement is needed to engrain it. 

Skill 2: Direction 

The swimmer’s forward-reaching arm must enter the water in line with the shoulder and pointing at the wall up ahead, not in front of the head. This is a common error for triathletes. In fact, reaching across the body (even past the centerline) might feel “normal” to the athlete and so they assume they are not doing this. This problem is again magnified in open water due to the stress of swimming in a crowd. 

Again, I start with the athlete on the pool deck. The athlete bends at the waist and simulates the freestyle stroke, watching to make sure the hand enters the water in line with their shoulder, not their head, on every stroke. 

Next the athlete practices the same movement with their head in the correct “posture” position, nose pointing down (no longer watching hand entry). It’s helpful to do this drill with a partner. The partner can move the swimmer’s hand into alignment, in front of the shoulder on the same side of the body. The swimmer should repeat this drill until they can get their hands into the correct position without looking at them. 

Back in the pool, the triathlete will swim comfortably fast 25m intervals while working on the direction skill. The exaggerated drill for this is called “penguin swimming.” The athlete is now instructed to have their hands enter the water wider than their shoulders. Those who are prone to cross over at stroke entry will typically position their hand in front of the shoulder when penguin swimming because that feels “wide” to them. Direction-challenged swimmers can be cued to always swim with a penguin stroke. 

When practicing this skill, it’s common for the triathlete’s “posture” to begin to break down, requiring reinforcement. There will now undoubtedly be a need for several 25s to master the new skill while maintaining the first. At the end of each 25 they should rest for 30 seconds or more (it’s not necessary to time this). While resting, the deck coach can provide reinforcement with demonstrations of how to make the movement while offering suggestions to individual swimmers. 

Video is very important in mastering open water movement patterns since there are now two skills that must be mastered simultaneously. 

Skill 3: Length 

This open water skill is the biggest change from what is typically taught in pool swimming. The athlete reaches the forward arm over the water (not through it) in the proper direction while slightly rolling onto the side of the reaching arm. This is a very challenging skill for most triathletes to learn as they typically have developed a “tugboat” method of swimming. By this I mean there is no rolling of the torso from side to side, but rather they swim with the upper body “locked” into a chest-down position. This creates more drag while also increasing stress on the small muscles of the shoulders, often resulting in a “swimmer’s shoulder” injury. Rolling from side to side reduces stress on the small shoulder muscles and allows greater use of the much larger and more powerful latissimus dorsi muscles to propel the body through the water. The movement also makes for a longer stroke, which increases speed. 

Initially, as with the other skills, the length skill is first taught on the deck, facing a wall. From an upright position, the triathlete reaches above their head with one arm, while keeping their head in the “posture” position. Most athletes do this with their chest facing the wall. Next, I cue them to  reach as high as possible. They soon learn that the way to do this is by rolling the upper torso slightly to one side to elevate the shoulder and arm while getting up on their toes. This is the position they will be attempting to mimic once back in the pool. Again, this is a challenging skill  to master, especially for the triathlete who is now attempting to integrate three new skills. 

Once back in the pool, the triathlete must constantly be reminded not to sacrifice their “posture” or “direction” to achieve a greater “length.” Again, the athlete will swim a couple of comfortably fast 25m intervals, while reinforcing posture and direction. 

A good drill that exaggerates the movement pattern of this length skill is called “belly to the wall.” While keeping the previous two skills (posture and direction) in mind, the athlete further rotates their torso while reaching by alternately turning their belly to face the sidewalls of the pool. For example, when the athlete’s right arm begins the reach for the next stroke, the body rotates to the right side until the athlete’s belly is facing the left sidewall of the pool. This is an exaggeration of the actual swim technique, but going beyond the required movement reinforces the learning. 

This skill is challenging and will require several comfortably fast 25s to master. Underwater video recording with feedback to individual athletes will enhance their learning experience. 

Skill 4: Catch 

The catch is critical both in pool and open water swimming, but it is typically poorly taught at the pool with vague references to “reaching over a barrel.” I like to teach the open water catch by having the athlete alternately reach forward over the water with one extended arm while rotating the torso to the same side (achieving the length explained above). The fingers should enter the water first at arm’s length (not near the head or shoulder as in pool swimming). Point the fingers and initially drive the hand straight down, to begin an early “catch and pull” movement. Slow swimmers have a short stroke due to their tugboat position in the water, and they typically don’t “catch” the water until their hand is under the chest or even the belly.  

To compound the problem, in pool swimming, underwater arm extension usually results in what I refer to as the “death move.” This is when the swimmer’s elbow is below the hand at full extension of the arm. In this position it is not possible to achieve an effective catch. The shorter stroke and ineffective catch reduce the swimmer’s distance per stroke. 

Once again, I start by having the swimmers practice this on the pool deck with a partner. The swimmer, bending at the waist, looks at their hand, reaches forward, slightly rolls to one side, and points their fingers at the pool deck. Then they repeat this in the good posture position with head down. The partner helps to guide the swimmer’s hand placement until the swimmer manages it without looking. Then they swap positions. 

Back in the water, this is an easy skill to master. 

If the pool has diving platforms for each lane, the athletes can stand in the pool and reach up to place both hands flat on the platforms. Next, I ask them to pull themselves up out of the water. To drive the point home, I then tell the athletes to attempt the same task, only this time with their wrists touching the platforms, but not the palms of their hands—it’s impossible. 

Now that the triathlete understands how critical the catch is to moving through the water, here are some additional drills to place further emphasis on establishing an early catch. 

The “windmill” is an exaggerated but effective drill to reinforce the catch skill. The swimmer’s arms remain straight when out of the water, like the blades on a windmill. This drill is practiced over several comfortably fast 25m intervals with long recoveries after each one. 

Integrating the skills into a fluid movement pattern  

Yet again, the difficulty of teaching the catch skill is compounded if the triathlete is now incorporating four new movement patterns at the same time. It is best to separate the skills so only one is being taught per session, and learning will come easier. Review video of the athlete’s stroke throughout the process, both above and below water, to provide necessary feedback to the swimmer. It can take several days, if not weeks, for an athlete to master these skills. 

Most triathletes will struggle to master one or two of the four PDLC skills. I told the athletes I coached to do only drills for those particular limited skills while swimming comfortably fast 25s with long recoveries. I would ask them not to do intervals until they could swim 100m in 90 seconds or faster (or an appropriate, but challenging time for the athlete). Until then, what they must accept is that poor technique is holding them back, not aerobic capacity or anaerobic threshold. Once they “graduate” to faster times they can return to swimming intervals. 

Once I refined my method for teaching these skills, I began to use it in my week-long, age group triathlon camps. The athletes were instructed to make the week before the camp short and easy so they arrived rested and ready to train. During the week they would train in all three sports, putting in around 20 hours for the week. This is why they needed to be fresh on Day 1. 

 On the first day, they swam a 500m time trial as a baseline for their swimming. For the next 4 or 5 days, in addition to running and cycling, they swam only comfortably fast 25s with long recoveries (they were never “on the clock”). These drill sessions would last 30 to 45 minutes. Then on the last day they again swam a 500m time trial. What we found was that, despite their much greater fatigue, about 90 percent of the campers swam faster times when tired on the last day than when they were fresh on Day 1. That proved to them that the key to faster swimming was not more hard intervals but rather working on their swim skills.  

I also had to warn them that when they got back to their home pool they were likely to have a swim coach try to reverse what I had taught them. I suggested they say in response, “I’ll work on that,” then continue to implement their PDLC swim training. 


You’ve reached the end of The Craft of Coaching Module 3 // Mapping a Season of Training. Next up is Module 4 // The Business of Coaching.