TSME cover image[Editorial Note: The following is excerpted from Chapter 21 of Terry Laughlin’s 2002 book, Triathon Swimming Made Easy: The Total Immersion Way for Anyone to Master Triathlon or Open Water Swimming]

Each summer, I divide my swimming between an outdoor 50-meter pool in New Paltz, and several lakes in the nearby Shawankgunk Mountains. At the pool, I swim at slack times, with no lane lines so I sometimes have to weave through other bathers, providing “open-water practice” of a sort. I further simulate open-water in the pool by doing the following:

  • Swimming “blind.” Swimming 50-meters without lanes lines tests how straight I swim when not following a line. As I take 30-40 strokes per length, I may swim 20-plus strokes with my eyes closed and see how far I’ve wandered from the line where I started. This will help me pick a frequency for sighting when I race.
  • Sighting. Once or twice each length, I can breathe and sight to the front, specifically practicing my ability to maintain balance and rhythm as I do. I can combine this with blind swimming– opening my eyes only when I lift my head– for an even more accurate simulation of the open water experience. 
  • Drafting. I sometimes “draft” a few friends to swim with me and practice close-order drafting, swimming in tight single file down the pool, with the leader dropping to the end at each wall. [More detail in Ch. 21 of Triathlon Swimming Made Easy]
  • Porpoise. At the shallower end of the pool, I (or we) can begin the length with 3 or 4 porpoises before we begin stroking. We work on efficient, low-angle porpoising– channeling energy forward as we dive toward the bottom and back toward the surface, and on grabbing the bottom and pushing off quickly.

Look This Way

Without a line to follow, any swimmer will eventually travel in a circle; the best swimmers, in a 10-mile circle, others within the turning radius of a VW. In open water, you stay the course by occasionally sighting on landmarks, buoys, and swim caps. Practice can help you do that without losing your balance and flow. Here’s what I practice:

  • Look less often. When your technique improves, you’ll swim straighter. I often swim considerable distances without looking. It usually takes me about 320 strokes to cross the lake (yes, I count strokes even there), so I’ll often begin by taking 100 “blind” strokes without checking my bearings, to see how straight I swim. If I’ve gone considerably off, I’ll take fewer strokes before looking again. This gives me a sense of how often to sight in a race.
  • Sight smart. As we swim westward, our target is a dead tree angled into the water. Coming east, we swim toward a dock. Complicating the westward trip is sun glare that obscures the dead tree until we move into shadow, about 50 meters from the shore. How do I sight for the first 350 meters? On the bluff above the shore the treeline dips slightly just right of the spot we’re aiming for. So I sight on the dip in the treeline until we reach the shadows. Heading east, the dock isn’t clearly visible until the last 100 meters, so I use two buildings behind it, one a bit to its right and one a bit to its left, to “triangulate.” While warming up for a race, check for landmarks and other features that can help guide you when visibility is compromised.
  • Sight seamlessly. Sometimes the lake is almost as calm as pool water. When it is, I practice “surfing” my goggles barely over the surface, using my extending arm for support as I lift my head up and forward. Staying that low is far less tiring than holding my head aloft for several strokes in a row, but I may not get a completely clear picture. This sighting style is so easy to fit into a normal stroke rhythm that if I didn’t get a complete picture, I assemble one by taking a series of “snapshots” with brief peeks forward. And when windchop kicks up on the lake, I adjust by lifting just a bit higher or by taking more “snapshots.” These techniques help me maintain seamless balance and flow.


Breathe This Way

Breathing to both sides is a key skill for open water. Breathing to one side for 20 minutes or longer can leave neck and back muscles tense; breathing both ways keeps you looser. Second, you never know on which side your landmarks and buoys may be. And finally, waves, chop, or splashy swimmers on one side can be a problem unless you’re comfortable breathing the other way. Fortunately, our T.I lessons [earlier in this book] should have helped you become comfortable with bilateral breathing. I do most of my swimming in both pool and lake, breathing alternately. That could mean breathing every three strokes, or every five if I’m going super slow (my effort level is low and so is my oxygen consumption). It could mean breathing on the right side while heading west and on the left going east. It could mean 10 breaths on my right, followed by 10 on my left. I practice all kinds of alternating patterns, so I can shift easily while racing.

To read the full chapter on Open Water Practice and Racing, check out Chapter 21 of Triathlon Swimming Made Easy… or our “Outside the Box: A Program for Success in the Open Water” video! See clip below: