How Open Water Swimming Can Boost Pool Performance

Eva Fabian - Open Water
Eva Fabian racing in the 2012 FINA 10 K Marathon Swimming World Cup in Patagones-Viedma, Argentina

How Open Water Swimming Can Boost Pool Performance

As swimming pool availability across the country has been at an all-time low the past few months due to COVID-19 pool closures, swimmers have struggled to find a way to train. However, as summer is getting underway, open water swimming is a potential solution for people to participate in the sport they love. Former Team USA open water head coach, Jack Fabian, outlines the many reasons why open water swimming can be a reliable alternative to swimming in pools. It can also enhance training in many ways for swimmers, even when the pools are open again. 

1. Sharpening Technique

Eva Fabian training with Israel National Open Water team, November 2018, Tel Aviv, Israel

While a swimmer can develop a multitude of skills through pool training, swimming in open water can help you in ways that pool training cannot. Fabian describes how stroke imbalances can be recognized more easily and corrected in open water. “With open water training, people tend to notice stroke imbalances that they perhaps wouldn’t recognize in a pool,” he said.

Without a lane line to swim along or the bottom of the pool to use for guidance, anyone with an imbalance will notice themselves veering off course in open water. One effective method for correction is swimming alongside someone in open water, where you rely on each other to stay on course.

Additionally, open water swimming can improve balance and core strength, according to Fabian. “With the longer distances that come with open water, someone who lacks balance and core strength will begin to notice their hips and legs dropping, respectively,” Fabian said.

With consistent open water training, these key areas will show significant improvement. 

2.  Fitness

2009 World Championship, 25 K event, feeding boat. July 2009, Ostia, Italy

Just as open water training can help tweak technical issues an athlete may have, it can also provide sufficient capacity work. Fabian takes advantage of this opportunity with his swimmers, who participate in open water swimming about four times a week to try something different for their upcoming collegiate seasons. “In the pool, you typically have sets that involve swimming at threshold, or above threshold.,” Fabian said. “If you look at other sports such as nordic skiing and cycling, which have a lot of similarities with distance swimming, they do a lot of low heart rate work. They often feel that lowering that threshold can increase your endurance.” Sprinkling in lower threshold work along with race pace, short interval work can be beneficial then, as swimmers can attain both a solid engine and the explosiveness that comes with high threshold work. 

Fitness levels can also increase from the temperature of the water itself. Pushing yourself to perform in harsh conditions will force your body to react quickly. The colder the water is, the more difficult breathing is. This temperature forces you to optimize what little oxygen you can take in, making you more adept at adapting to stressful conditions.

3. Health

Keene State College, Women’s team, January 2012, ISHOF rough water race, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Just as there are ways open water swimming can make one more fit, it can also boost one’s health in numerous ways. Fabian describes low heart rate swimming as something that can be “very beneficial to your physiology and neural system.”

According to research by Czech scientists cited by an article in The Scotsman (“What Are the Health Benefits of Open Water Swimming?”), evidence suggests that regular open water swimming can also boost your immune system. The theory is that the shock you experience when you enter cold water causes the immune system to produce more white blood cells, which counteract the shock. The article goes on to describe how experiencing extremes in temperature in open water swimming can increase circulation as the heart pumps more blood to the body’s organs. At the same time, evidence suggests that exposure to cold water stimulates the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, improving mood and lowering stress.

4. New Adversity

Sealion surprises Eva Fabian during the 2012 FINA 10 K Swimming World Cup in Patagones-Viedma, Argentina

Open water swimming can help produce a degree of mental toughness due to the natural environment in which it is performed. The temperature, waves, wind, sun, and other obstacles are all added challenges that open water swimming offers to swimmers looking for new ways to improve performance in the pool.

Similarly to how riding a bicycle outdoors on rugged terrain burns more calories than cycling on a machine, taking your swim to an outdoor body of water demands that your body works harder. Fabian points out that through variances in tides, winds, water temperature, and other obstacles, your training will naturally be more difficult. The result is the development of mental toughness that will help a swimmer push through whatever challenges are thrown at them in the pool.

One of the most valuable features of open water swimming is that it can offer anyone who is feeling a bit burned out with pool swimming an entirely new experience within the same sport. Challenging yourself in a new environment can be quite rewarding, not only for you as a swimmer, but as a person in general. Many swimmers find that being able to find fresh motivation in open water swimming leads to a renewed sense of excitement towards the sport.

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21 comments

  1. Kevin Petre

    When you learn to cut and glide through chop and swim against strong currents, getting in a pool makes you feel like you’re turbo charged…..

    • Fiona Eason

      Christine Cameron great 👍🏻 theyre going couple of times a week 😊

    • Dana Eder

      Natalie Rice Beth Forbes Lori Birdsong

  2. Karen Green

    Abi Green Tasha Barguss Niamh Barguss Beth Goucher

    • Beth Goucher

      Karen Green oooh ill have a read. Abi Green backstroke head out might not cut it though 😂😘🐠🐡🦈

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