Metrics In Open Water: How To Train

For most swimmers who desire it training in open-water may still only be an occasional or seasonal experience.  That means most swimmers practice in the pool, swimming and measuring things between walls – this is ‘normal’ while swimming without walls out in the open air is really nice but still rather strange.

Training in open-water requires an adjustment in mindset and some adaptation of what we do in the pool.

1407 training partner

So, how do you train in open-water?

For me, the single most profound advantage of open-water training is having thousands of un-interrupted strokes upon which to focus and refine technique. I didn’t realize how much the turn or stop at the wall broke my concentration until I began swimming regularly in open-water. Once there however, I started swimming longer and longer continuous distances – I found myself eager to go further – the TI skills I developed in the pool were an even greater advantage in open-water. Over these last several years of open-water swimming, even after practicing TI in the pool for 9 years prior, I felt my technique go to a new level, what seems like each year since.

I attribute a good portion of this to the freedom I have in open-water to go for longer periods of time with intense focus on a particular detail in my stroke without an interruption (switching to a new one when my brain feels ready for it). I can pick a focal point then test and examine my execution every second for thousands of seconds comparing this moment to the last one until I find the tweak I need to make and then memorize it. Like an ear being trained to pick out nuances of complex music by being continually immersed in it, my proprioception increased its sensitivity to subtle changes in the flow and pressure of water over the surface of my skin, and to subtle changes in the way I transfer force through my body. I am only getting more excited to practice as my sensitivity increases.

How to learn this? I only know one way – get out there and start doing it… mindfully.

These are the steps I identify in my improvement process:

Awareness – By focusing I became aware of some new or finer detail in the stroke. Simply by picking a spot in the stroke and concentrating on it for a while, making observations, comparing this side to that side, etc – I started to notice things I hadn’t before, both strengths and weaknesses.

Understanding – I sought out some understanding for how swimming works and then how this piece of my stroke works within that framework. This enabled me to evaluate what was happening and make decisions for improvement. TI has provided me with that framework.

Experiment – I experimented with ways to tweak that detail to see what effects it might have, until I found a promising one.

Testing – I tested it over and over until it made something feel easier, feel better, move faster, move with more precision, or held up under greater challenge. I would apply more challenge to make it stronger.

Refinement – And then I would refine it further by going back through the process.

The keys to this are choosing effective Focal Points. A Focal Point is specific singular direction for my attention and/or a command for a specific part of my body.

In terms of attention – like sitting in a cafe and tuning in to the conversation on one particular table nearby, in the midst of all the other water sounds I can tune in to the rhythmic rush of water past my head on each catch of the hand, and notice how it changes if the catch is not quite solid enough.

In terms of command – like correcting my posture while sitting at my office desk, I can lengthen my spine and engage the core muscles to hold a firm, straight torpedo-like frame that transfers force through my body smoothly. My attentional Focal Point notices when posture degrades a little and my commanding Focal Point fixes it.

And what structure do you use to do this?

As I described in the post Metrics In Open Water: Measuring Distance the easiest thing to do is set up Stroke Count Intervals, especially if you don’t have two reasonably spaced fixed (and measured) points to swim intervals between.

Those stroke count intervals should be set according to your Attention-Endurance, rather than your Metabolic-Endurance – though you can do as many repeats as you like to push both. Ultimately, you need your Attention-Endurance to be stronger than your Metabolic-Endurance. This is what a dedication to Focal Point training will do for you.

A newer swimmer, or one deeply conditioned to a 25m pool may have an attention span of just 15 to 25 strokes (about what he would take in a pool length). But with practice, that can expand a great deal, to hundreds of strokes even. But start with what you are capable of right now.

Then, you can make practice sets in open-water composed of drills, slow-motion swimming, and whole stroke. Let me offer some ideas to get you thinking how you can construct some for yourself…

 

Practice Set Idea #1

Focal Points A, B, and C
Divisions: LEFT arm focus, RIGHT arm focus

Round 1:
15 seconds drill* with Focal Point A, focus on LEFT arm
15 whole strokes with Focal Point A, focus on LEFT arm

15 seconds drill with Focal Point A, focus on RIGHT arm
15 whole strokes with Focal Point A, focus on RIGHT arm

Round 2: same set, use Focal Point B
Round 3: same set, use Focal Point C
Round 4: same set, blend Focal Points AB
Round 5: same set, blend Focal Points BC
Round 6: same set, blend Focal Points AC

* The reference to ’15 seconds drill’ is for something like Swing Skate, where you will swing the recovery arm 4 or 5 swings (about 6 seconds), no breathing. Stop, stand to breathe, then resume again for another 4 or 5 swings. This may take up 15 or 20 seconds.

 

Practice Set Idea #2

Focal Points A, B, and C
Divisions: LEFT arm focus, RIGHT arm focus

Round 1:
15 strokes drill with Focal Point A, focus on LEFT arm
30 strokes whole stroke, with Focal Point A, focus on LEFT arm

15 strokes drill with Focal Point A, focus on RIGHT arm
30 strokes whole stroke, with Focal Point A, focus on RIGHT arm

Round 2: same set, use Focal Point B
Round 3: same set, use Focal Point C
Round 4: same set, blend Focal Points AB
Round 5: same set, blend Focal Points BC
Round 6: same set, blend Focal Points AC

 

Practice Set Idea #3

Focal Points A, B, and C
Stroke Count: Breathe every 3 strokes, count breaths

Round 1:
5 breaths slow-motion swimming, with with Focal Point A
15 breaths whole stroke, with Focal Point A

5 breaths slow-motion swimming, with with Focal Point A
20 breaths whole stroke, with Focal Point A

5 breaths slow-motion swimming, with with Focal Point A
25 breaths whole stroke, with Focal Point A

Round 2: same set, use Focal Point B
Round 3: same set, use Focal Point C
Round 4: same set, blend Focal Points AB
Round 5: same set, blend Focal Points BC
Round 6: same set, blend Focal Points AC

What about resting?

I suggest you use the drill or slow-motion swimming as form of active rest, training your body to lower heart rate and renew attention without stopping your swimming. This is a skill you would appreciate in a race or long (or challenging) swim.

But you are certainly welcome to stop also. For this I recommend ‘interrupted’ breathing position (rolling from freestyle Skate position to backstroke Skate position) to allow you to hold balance and streamline body position with virtually no effort, breathe as much as you want, then roll back to resume swimming already in position to go.

And if you are swimming in a beautiful location (or with a beautiful partner – like the one pictured above), then you should certainly stop occasionally to look around and appreciate it all. I do!

What about making it more challenging?

You can add a few extra stroke to each repeat – e.g. from 10 strokes drill to 12 strokes.

Or you can multiply the stroke counts in these suggested sets according to your attention-endurance – e.g. from 15 strokes to 30 strokes. It depends on your mind and needs. My ow sets are usually composed of 50, 100, or 300 stroke count repeats. 300 strokes is about 5+ minutes and that is a nice amount of time for my mind before I make a change in focus.

You can add a Tempo Trainer. The first level of tempo challenge is to set it at a ‘comfortable’ tempo which will challenge your consistency (the brain has a variable sense of timing – the Tempo Trainer reveals it!). The next level is to set it at a slightly uncomfortable SLOW tempo which will challenge your balance and lateral stability. The next level of challenge is to set it at a slightly uncomfortable FAST tempo which will challenge your stroke timing.

What about Speed?

The intensity level you set is another challenge/complexity multiplier. When you increase intensity it becomes harder to maintain precision of movements – imprecision means increased drag which means wasted energy. But you can gradually improve your precision at higher intensities, if you practice incremental increases in challenge. You must first be successful with your skill objective at lower intensity levels before you can expect to be successful at higher intensity levels. Gain control over your stroke first, then test it for consistency over longer distances, and then test it for consistency over incrementally increasing tempos.

The only way you will be able to measure true speed is to swim between fixed points of a distance you have measured, and even then you have to take into account the variations in water conditions that happen naturally in wild water – wind, currents, temperature changes, etc. All those natural conditions make speed a relative term in open-water. When you don’t have fixed points, you can use your pool-trained Rate Of Perceived Effort to estimate how much energy you are putting into it. Keep in mind that you will only have this subjective perception of effort to go on when you are in a race (unless you have a HR and speedometer readout on your Google Goggles!) so it makes sense to train and refine that sense so you can rely upon it.

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One response to “Metrics In Open Water: How To Train

  1. Pingback: Metrics In Open Water: How To Train | Total ImmersionTotal Immersion·

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