Train the Way You Intend to Race – Triathlon Open Water Training

Even after 13 years of training for Triathlon and more particularly Ironman, I often make the same mistakes over and over again. It reminds me of Einstein’s famous quote regarding the definition of insanity “is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” I’m sure even Jan Frodeno or Daniela Ryf, would be guilty of the same “insanity” once in a while. So what do I mean by “train the way you intend to race” or the corollary  “Race the way you have trained”? which is really one and the same thing.

There is often a disconnect between the way triathletes train for events and the way they race, this is particularly true of the swim leg of the triathlon. The best example of this is training all year round in a nice, warm, flat pool with lane ropes and a pool bottom to keep you straight but come race day, we change into a wetsuit, use different goggles, haven’t done any sighting practice and then wonder why your whole race fell apart. For the most part, it’s because we haven’t practiced in open water, using our race day equipment, wetsuit, goggles and nose clips etc etc.

The fact is that a wet suit alters your stroke (yes even the most expensive and supplest of wetsuits) and can cause all sorts of issues if you haven’t been using it consistently for a while. Many people complain about being restricted by the wetsuit across the chest, shoulders or arms. The reality is that you haven’t trained enough in your wetsuit or in the Irish case, in cold water. Yes there are some circumstance where the wetsuit fit is the problem, but 9 out of 10 times, it’s the lack of training in your wetsuit.

But, I hear you say, I did Klagenfurt IM last year which was a “no wetsuit swim” and I still was way off where I was in the pool. This is the second part of where we fail to train the way we  intend to race. In the pool, sighting is not an issue, the lane ropes, the lines on the pool bottom and the toes in front all keep us swimming in a straight line. When we hit the open water, we now find that there is no discernable bottom, no lane ropes and staying on someone’s toes becomes a nightmare. You bust your chops staying on your “pool-buddies” feet for the first 20m of a race, then you take a breath, stick you head down and boom, next time you look; your buddy is 5m to the left. Then you think right I’m over there, stick your head down, pull even harder and boom, when you look again he’s now 10m away and you’re now officially blown out the back. Why? Because you haven’t practiced open water drafting and swimming technique, it’s as simple as that. In open water you can become very disorientated very quickly. When you become disorientated your stroke mechanics based on your perfected  catch, your pull, your high elbow all go out the window, all that time spent in the pool and now your just a mass of flailing arms. You’re now fighting the water and it’s a losing battle, energy drains quickly along with your hopes of a good swim.

So enough of the problems, what are the solutions? Below is my best advice on “training the way you intend to race”. In this article I’m not giving you the nitty gritty of each aspect, rather trying to inform you as to how important each aspect is to work on, in an open water setting. This advice is not from a Pro or a coach,  it’s from someone who has found himself in the above position far too often. I’m not for one minute saying I have solved them, but this is what I intend to work on this season. Later in the year as we progress I will dive into each aspect in more detail.

Whether  you like it or not, all triathlons and open water swims take place where?…you guessed it, in open water. There is no escaping it, so you’ll need to get used to the following if you are to succeed:

Your wetsuit: new or old, if you don’t swim in it regularly, you will find it very difficult to adapt your stroke and body position on race day. As soon as the water becomes bearable, you need to be swimming in your race wetsuit once a week as a minimum. The pool is excellent for fitness and technique, but you need open water practice.

Cold water: yes the cold itself needs time to get used to. It can take your breath away, numb your arms, hands and fingers. These are all used to sense the water and until you warm up properly, you won’t be able to feel your catch and you need to get used to this scenario. Cold water affects your breathing and bi-lateral swimmers often find it hard to swim alternating breaths.

Drafting: there are many studies on the benefits of drafting in swimming. Triathlon 220 estimates the savings to be over 3mins for a 3.8km event. However drafting can cause anxiety, you’re constantly adjusting and tweaking your stroke to stay in the best drafting position. You’re swimming with your face in bubbles and splash which can be difficult, this all takes practice to get used to. Get your buddies to let you draft off them at a slow pace and then gradually build to race pace. Drafting is an art form and needs time to perfect, a lot of it is down to being calm, while at the same time exerting a lot of effort in the first 100m until everyone settles down into a pattern. It’s completely different to drafting in a pool, so don’t fool yourself, get into open water and practice drafting. Do this without buoyancy aids as they badly affect your ability to draft and to be drafted off.

Sighting: Regardless as to whether you are drafting or not, you will need to be able to sight effectively. This sounds simple but the real rookie mistake here is sighting with your head skewed or not looking straight ahead. Because you haven’t practiced, you are only catching a glimpse at the wrong point in your stroke cycle. If you are looking at a sighting buoy with you head tilted, then you’ll find that you’ll swim in an arc rather than straight. You will eventually get there but by the longest route. This is something you can practice in the pool but we rarely do. When you’re not used to it, it’s actually energy sapping. But it’s something that you can get used to really quickly if you practice.

Finally: the anxiety of swimming in open water. For most of us, this is the biggest issue and I have to admit it still affects me after 13 years of open water swimming. So what can we do? In recent years there has been a massive increase in the use of tow buoys, tow floats and dry bags etc etc. The easiest thing I could say to you is to go ahead and use them, but there is one caveat. What are you going to do on race day when you are not allowed to use them? For this reason, its important to practice with a group of people, preferably with a Kayaker present swimming without your “blankie”. You need to always make sure that you are able deal with any scenario that may arise;  for example  ingesting a mouthful of salty water without heading into an unmanageable panic. This is particularly true of skins swimmers. In this instance I cannot emphasise the necessity of “training  the way you intend to race”. Most races or open water events will be run in water that is quite deep and well out of your depth, nothing can prepare you for this other than gradual progressive practice. Start to swim in shallow water within your depth, then swimming in a group with a Kayaker for short spells out side of your depth. Maybe asking the kayaker to drag a body board (or small surf board) behind so that you can always hang onto something if you get panicked. Gradually building toward the full distance you intend to swim on race day, without the use of a tow buoy or other open water swim safety device. Please do this safely with a kayaker and in a small group. You then need to move onto race conditions where you need to learn to swim close to other swimmers. Try mimicking  swim starts and race other race conditions, like lake swimming v sea swimming depending on where your race is being held.

In summary, training the way you intend to race is essential. The easiest thing for me to say (as the purveyor of a swimming safety device which is race legal) in relation to anxiety is to use a Tekrapod. Yes using a Tekrapod is a good idea, but then I would be guilty of going against what I truly believe and its this; If you have not trained or practiced the art of open water swimming extensively before your chosen race, then simply don’t do it. There is no safety device that will prevent hypothermia, cramp, ingestion of water and the panic that ensues, which could lead in extreme circumstances to heart attack. Open water swimming is dangerous, statistically twice as many people drown in the EU than are killed cycling on the roads.  So please practice, practice, practice and build your tolerance, learn to be comfortable in open water. Don’t assume because you can comfortably swim  1km in a pool that a 750m swim in open water will be a doddle, it doesn’t work that way.

Open water swimming is the most mindful experience that really connects us to our aquatic past, it’s a fantastic sport with massive health benefits and we can do it safely so long as we respect our immersive environment. Always swim in a group, always in a location you know and never where there is fast moving water vehicles, no safety device can save you from an impact. Finally always let someone on shore know where you’re going and what time you’ll be back.

Swim safe


Select your currency

Own the open water! Be the first to hear about exciting new products and get open water inspiration

Size guide

size height cm height ft/inch
S 135-164 4′ 5″- 5′ 3″
M 155-181 5′ – 5′ 9″
L 172-191 5′ 6″ – 6′ 3″
XL 183-203 6′ – 6′ 6″

Size guide

Place the tape tight up under your arms to take the fullest measurement of your chest. Remember: TekraPod has adjustable straps to help you get the perfect fit.