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by Elaine K Howley

December 14, 2020

Interval training should be part of every open water swimmer’s training plan

As temperatures fall, many open water swimmers are contemplating a return to the pool. Some of us are begrudgingly thinking about how to transition from a summer of fun swimming out in the open and heading back indoors to the confines of the concrete box.

Although it might not be the most fun thing to move your training back into the pool, it just might be the best thing you can do to gain an extra edge next summer.

You, like a lot of open water swimmers, might default to going at a long, slow pace, a pace you might be able to hold for hours. It’s an important skill to train if you’re looking to swim mile after mile across oceans, lakes, or rivers in lengthy events.

But even in those events, you still need to have some speed available. If you’re nearly across the English Channel and your pilot tells you the tide is about to turn, you’re going to have to find some speed to get into shore before that tide change or risk having your swim last another six hours. You might also have to fight a current.

In shorter swimming events, you might be looking to edge out a competitor, but if you haven’t trained your fast-twitch muscles or sprinting capacity, you’ll likely be left in the dust at the buoy or left gasping for air as you near the finish.

But if you embrace interval training in the pool, you can have that extra speed gear ready and trained for when you most need it. So instead of dreading a return to the pool, embrace it and focus on the following important areas of training to help you become a better all-around open water swimmer next summer.

Include Interval Training

Interval training is the holy grail of pool swim workouts, featuring short bouts of high intensity swimming that can help you get and stay faster while giving you an incredible cardiovascular and joint-gentle resistance workout. Interval training is the mainstay of most Masters swimming workouts, and getting in consistent interval training several times a week all winter can help you build strength, stamina, and speed. Work with a certified Masters coach to help you build a training plan that will help you meet your goals, and get ready to swim faster and more consistently when you get back to open water next spring or summer. USMS members can also access a vast online database of workouts for a variety of goals and fitness levels.

Practice Pacing

Although it’s important to get your heart rate up and work intervals, you also need to develop your ability to hold a pace for longer distances. Pool training can help you learn to pace yourself and boost your base pace through steady, consistent work. Over time, you can find your all-day pace, your 5K pace, and your 1-mile race pace and learn how to hold the highest speed possible over the longest distance.

Learn Bilateral Breathing

Being able to breathe to both sides can make you a more versatile and comfortable open water swimmer. Depending on the way the wind is blowing, the way the course is laid out, and where competitors might creep up on you during a race, being able to breath to both sides lets you see all around you and adjust to changing conditions. Practicing breathing to your weaker side in a pool can help you get more comfortable so that when you head back outside, you’ll have made it habit.

Get Comfortable With Sighting

Another key skill in open water is sighting and being able to stay on course. The shortest distance, even in a long-distance event, is a straight line, so staying on course can get you to your end goal faster. Throw some sighting drills into every pool workout to get more comfortable with how to do it most efficiently.

Drill, Baby, Drill

Drills are important to improving technique. When you’re swimming in open water all the time, it can be more challenging to keep up with regular drill routines. In the pool, they should become part of every workout to reinforce the most efficient technique that will keep your shoulders healthy and help you get to the finish line first.

Ground Your Gear

If you haven’t quite found the right goggles, cap, or swimsuit yet, trying different options in the pool over the winter will give you plenty of time and opportunity to test out new options to find what works best for you.

Embrace Virtual Events

You can take part in the 2021 1-Hour USMS ePostal National Championship between Jan. 1–Feb. 28 and the SmartyPants Vitamins USMS Winter Fitness Challenge, a 30-minute swim, between Feb. 1–15. These events offer a great way to spot check your progress and fitness level after a long summer in the open water and winter in the pool while giving you a training goal that can help you level up next summer in open water. Check them out and swim them in your local pool.


  • Open Water


  • Open Water