Swimming is just swimming, right? Not necessarily.

Different terrains require specific training plans and techniques to succeed. Specifically, there are substantial differences between open water and pool swimming.

What makes open water swimming unique is the roughness of the uncontrolled environment of rivers, lakes, channels, and oceans. The water is cold and choppy. You are shoulder to shoulder with your competitors. There are no lane lines to guide you and no walls to push off.

To swim efficiently through the waves and avoid getting trampled by your competitors, you need to do more than swim back and forth in a pool for your pre-race training.

The six techniques laid out in this article will teach you how to adjust your stroke, breathing, and workouts for open water swimming accordingly.

In this article, we will cover:

  1. Sighting
  2. Breathing
  3. Pack Swimming
  4. Stroke Technique
  5. Cold Temperature
  6. No Walls to Push Off
Open water swimmer doing strokes in the sea

1) Sighting

Without lane lines to guide you along a straight path, you need to follow buoys by “sighting” in order to stay on course. Sighting is a skill that is often underestimated, and when done correctly can save you precious energy and time.

As you raise your head straight up to sight, your legs will naturally go down, increasing drag tremendously. The goal of effective sighting is therefore to:

1. Get a quick glimpse of the next buoy

2. Minimize increased drag


- Raise your head only high enough to lift your eyes out of the water

- Do not breathe when you lift your head to sight. Just take a quick glimpse by separating breathing from sighting.

- Give an extra couple kicks (with your legs) right as you lift your head. This will keep your feet from dropping as much.

2) Breathing

To increase your swimming efficiency in the pool, it is better to turn your head sideways just enough to catch a breath. This minimizes drag and keeps your body in a streamlined position.

Unfortunately, unlike in pool swimming, where waves are no higher than 1-2 inches, swimming in open water requires swimmers to catch their breath amidst higher waves.


Be prepared to roll more onto your side.

In open water swimming, it is more important for you to actually catch a breath rather than keeping your body optimally streamlined.

To strengthen your breath before jumping into the pool, you can do some breathing exercises to avoid any muscle fatigue when you are in the water. Using a breathing trainer can help you reach your goals.

The breathing trainer is designed to train your entire respiratory system - inspiratory and expiratory strengths. To learn more about breathing training visit Airofit.com

3) Pack Swimming

When the race starts in a big triathlon, there could be more than 100 swimmers running in at once. As you can imagine, this can quickly become chaotic.

If you are nervous about pack swimming there are a couple of things you can do to avoid getting smacked or kicked by another swimmer.


First, you can wait to charge at the water for a couple of minutes until the chaos has settled. You may lose two or three minutes initially, but you can save a ton of energy by swimming in less turbulent water.

However, if you are more confident in your swimming skills, your other option is to start at the outer edge of the start line. You may swim a bit further than others, but you can swim in clean water and stay clear of other swimmers.

4) Stroke Technique

Stroke technique is arguably the most important factor in improving your swimming speed and efficiency.

According to a 2017 research study on open water swimming performance, it was found that:

“a 10% increase in propelling efficiency (stroke technique) resulted in an improvement in performance which was superior to the gains found when increasing the maximal aerobic or anaerobic power by 10%.”

The core basics of stroke techniques are the same for pool swimming as they are in open water swimming. A close examination of championship-level open water swimmers shows their strokes largely mimic their strokes in the pool.

For example, if you examine the stroke technique of open water Olympic Champion Oussama Mellouli, who won the 10K open water race and finished 3rd in the 1500-meter pool event, you will notice a remarkably similar stroke in both events.


Ideally, you should be able to swim in clear water (for tips on how to do this, see #4) so that you do not have to deviate from the ideal stroke technique.

However, if you find yourself jammed up in the middle of a pack of one hundred swimmers in choppy water, your stroke will need to adapt to the environment.

In the latter case, your stroke needs to be more forceful to get around and over the waves and the people around you. This means your arm needs to be straighter in the recovery phase and your turnover tempo needs to be a little higher to deal with the choppy water conditions.

5) Cold Temperatures

One of the major risks in open water swimming is hypothermia, which happens when the core temperature drops below 35°C. According to the largest study of hypothermia in open water swimming, the risk of hypothermia was found to be higher with increasing race times and lower with increasing BMI.

In order to keep the core body temperature warm, the human body turns on thermogenesis mechanisms, such as peripheral vasoconstriction and shivering. However, protective mechanisms, like shivering, require high energy expenditure and are not sustainable in the long term.


If it is allowed, wear a wetsuit!

Wetsuits can provide a huge advantage. Besides keeping you warm in cold water; wetsuits will reduce drag and increase your buoyancy considerably. This can save valuable energy and shave minutes off your swim time. So – if conditions allow it – you should definitely wear one! Here are the specific Ironman wetsuit rules based upon water temperature:

• 24.6 degrees C (76.2 degrees F) and warmer: Wetsuits not allowed*

• 18.4 – 24.5 degrees C (65.1 – 76.1 degrees F): Wetsuits allowed

• Colder than 18.4 degrees C (65.1 degrees F): Wetsuit + Booties allowed

6) No Walls to Push Off

Competitive swimmers spend a lot of time perfecting their turns and underwater dolphin kicks. Thanks to the push off the wall and the tight streamline, this is normally where maximal velocity is reached.

Unfortunately for triathletes, there are no walls to push off from in a lake. Consequently, you do not have that short boost of speed nor a brief moment to rest your arms.


When training in a pool, come right to the surface after pushing off walls.

Do not bother working on your flip turns, and do not waste time doing underwater kicks. Rather, push off the wall and come straight to the surface to maximize your time spent swimming.