Training for marathon swims: Pool vs. open water

Training for marathon swims: Pool vs. open water

Newbie marathon swimmers often wonder how they should allocate their training time between the pool and open water. There’s no simple answer: It depends on a variety of factors unique to the individual. A few questions to ask yourself:

What’s the target swim? Distance, water temp, conditions, etc. The further outside neutral conditions your target swim is, the more open water you’ll want to incorporate into your training. (To train for cold water… swim in cold water.)

Are you training to finish (regardless of time), or are you training to race? The more speed matters in your target swim, the more high-quality interval training in the pool you’ll probably want to do.

What’s most convenient? If you live next to a safe body of open water, but far away from the nearest pool, this may tip the balance towards OWS. In my experience, convenience promotes consistency — and consistency promotes results.

What do you inherently enjoy? If you have access to a high-quality Masters pool squad with good coaching and fun lanemates, this may tip the balance towards the pool.…

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How to get an effective workout at public lap swim

How to get an effective workout at public lap swim

This post is part of a collaborative project with Donal at LoneSwimmer, delving into basic issues of training and technique in swimming. Donal also published a post today, check it out here.


Whenever possible, I prefer swimming with other people – either with a training partner or in a coached squad workout. But occasionally my schedule dictates finding water at a public lap swim session. It’s possible to get a good workout at open lap swim, but it takes a bit of planning and training know-how.

Based on my observations at hundreds of public lap swim sessions over the years, there are some folks who come to swim laps, desire to become better swimmers, but simply don’t know how to go about the task. For those without a background in competitive swimming or similar sport, it may not be at all obvious.

For example, one of the more common approaches I see at the pool consists of: (1) Getting in the water. (2) Swimming continuously for X amount of time. (3) Getting out.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers on getting the most out of solo workouts at a public lap swim session:

Learn proper lane etiquette.



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Controlled Stroke Count Drill

Controlled Stroke Count Drill

In “Stroke Count Games” and “A Better SWOLF Formula” I suggested a test set of 8×100, as fast as possible, holding a specific number of strokes per length (SPL), to hone in on your most efficient combination of stroke length and tempo.

I frequently do a modified version of this set as a quick tune-up before a competition or a challenging distance workout: 12×100 short-course, aiming for the following SPL on each rep: 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. Moderate, controlled pace on all – no more than 75%.

Obviously, the specific SPL goals will differ for each individual. For me, 15 SPL is my 400m/500yd race pace. 14 SPL is my 1-2 mile race pace. 13 SPL is my marathon pace.

The reason I like this set as a warm-up / tune-up is that the act of “depriving myself” of one stroke-per-length on each of the first 6 reps really focuses my attention on efficiency – maximizing the amount of water I’m pulling, and minimizing drag.…

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A better SWOLF formula

A better SWOLF formula

SWOLF (“swim golf”) is a drill that measures swimming efficiency. A SWOLF score is your time (in seconds) on one lap of the pool, added to the number of strokes you took. Lower scores = Higher efficiency. SWOLF is a fuzzy, indirect measure of efficiency, because stroke count doesn’t necessarily reflect effort. In my view, the most precise definition of SWOLF is that it identifies the most efficient stroke count for a given level of effort.

I originally wrote about SWOLF in April 2012, and the post has become – by a wide margin – the most widely-read in the history of this blog. In a subsequent post a month later – “Stroke Count Games” – I described how SWOLF doesn’t quite capture the most efficient stroke count. At least for me, using stroke cycles (number of strokes divided by two) produces better results.

I wondered if this was true for other swimmers, so I asked any interested readers to send me their own data, using a test set of 8×100. Three readers sent me their results.…

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Should you use swim paddles? A rule of thumb

Should you use swim paddles? A rule of thumb

Swim paddles (in my opinion) are useful for developing swim-specific strength, especially in the shoulders and lats. I prefer Strokemakers:

strokemaker paddles
Strokemaker paddle (size red #3). NOTE: The paddles come with a longer strap meant for the wrist, but don’t use it. That’s goofy. If you need the wrist strap to keep the paddle stable, you’re doing it wrong.

Strokemakers are the classic paddle for competitive swimmers. At various points in my swimming career I’ve used Green #1sYellow #2sRed #3s, and Blue #4s. As a Masters swimmer, I use Reds. As an open-water and marathon swimmer, I feel that the strength I develop with these paddles (which some have derogatorily described as “dinner plates”) helps me power through waves and chop in rough-water conditions.

(Note: I have no financial relationship with the company that makes Strokemakers. Every one of their products I own, I’ve paid for. I just like their paddles.)

There’s a catch, though: It’s probably a bad idea to use these paddles as a beginning (or even intermediate-level) swimmer.…

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Whirlpool Drill

Whirlpool Drill

Whirlpool Drill is one of my very favorite swimming drills – yet when I’ve shown or told people about it, I’ve been surprised how few have heard of it. It’s so much fun it almost seems like it shouldn’t be a drill. So here I am, sharing the wealth.

The other day I was doing a filming session off Santa Cruz Island (more on that later), and Whirlpool Drill was accidentally caught on tape! I was treading water, talking to one of the filmmakers, and a little whirlpool started to form near one of my hands. I got my interlocutor’s attention and made the whirlpool bigger for a few seconds while he kept the GoPro running. At one point, a stray piece of kelp was drawn into the vortex. Here’s the clip:

Basically, you scull your hand back and forth a few inches under water – rapidly, trying to maintain constant pressure against the water.…

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Good Workouts and Bad Workouts

Good Workouts and Bad Workouts

100×100 may be “the most famous of all distance swimming sessions” – but I’d never actually done it… until last Friday. Mark invited me to his USA-S squad’s morning practice, for reasons unspecified, and had this “special surprise” waiting for us: 100×100 (SCY), as:

  • 10 @ 1:30, warm-up
  • 10 @ 1:20
  • 10 @ { 2 @ 1:15, 3 @ 1:10, 3 @ 1:20, 2 @ 1:30 }
  • 6x: 10 @ { 4 @ 1:10, 3 @ 1:30, 2 @ 1:05, 1 @ 2:10 }
  • 10 @ 1:30, cool-down

Normally this would be a make-able (if challenging) set for me. Unfortunately, Friday was not a normal day. For whatever reason, my body was just not cooperating. I lifted weights on Thursday, but I don’t think that entirely accounts for it. It was just one of those days.

I have a “lead balloon” day once a month or so. I recognize it within minutes of getting in the water. Wow… I’ve got *nothing* today. On such days, I usually adjust my plans. Slow drilling, sculling, kicking… anything but a distance-overload set on tight intervals.…

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