swimmer doing her workout

How to Convert Pool Swim Workouts to Open Water

Pools are closed, but the weather is warming and athletes in many places are gaining access to venues for open-water swimming. Perhaps you’ve thought about take advantage of such an opportunity, but aren’t sure how to transfer the pool workouts you’re accustomed to doing to open water. Here are some tips.

How to transfer the pool workouts

Safety First

Much has changed in the past few months, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the rulebook for safe open-water swimming. For starters, don’t swim in any body of water where swimming is not currently permitted. Check before you go. When you do go, make sure to swim with at least one partner or with at least one observer on shore, if there’s no lifeguard on duty. Make sure also that you are aware of and prepared for the conditions (water temperature, currents, surf, etc.).

Technology to the Rescue

Although they were designed for pool use, our online library of 80/20 swim workouts can be used in open water. Just download the workout(s) you’re interest in doing and switch your device to open-water mode before your start. Your watch will then guide you through the workout using haptic feedback (i.e., vibration). Note, however, that it is not always easy to feel these signals, so be prepared to resort to another option if you have difficulty.

The Stroke-Count Hack

A low-tech way to convert structured swim sets to open water involves counting your strokes. To make use of it, you need to know either your average strokes per minute (SPM) or your average strokes per lap (that is, per 25 yards/meters or per 50 yards/meters, depending on your pool size). Some devices count strokes per minute automatically, so learning your stroke rate might be as easy as looking at data from past swims.

Suppose your stroke rate is 50 SPM and you wish to do a 300-meter interval at an intensity that equates to 2:00 per 100 meters. It will take you 6 minutes to complete this interval, or about (50 x 6 =) 300 strokes. Now all you have to do is count to 300!

Here’s another example: Let’s say you normally swim in a 25-yard pool and you know that it takes you 24 strokes to cover this distance. Using this number, you can calculate distances prescribed in any swim set you care to do.

Don’t Forget to Drill

Unless you’re already a highly advanced swimmer, the single most beneficial part of any pool swim you might do is the drill set. Athletes seldom bother with drills in open water, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from completing a more-or-less normal drill set in a lake, reservoir, or ocean. And, for that matter, there’s nothing stopping you from doing kick and pull sets as well!

Lemonade from Lemons

If you’re a triathlete, you seldom if ever compete in the pool. The vast majority of triathlon swims take place in open water. For this reason, open-water swim practice is a crucial part of preparating for optimal race performance. And for this reason, having no choice but to train in open water is as much an opportunity as it is a limitation. Take advantage of this opportunity by working on open-water swim skills such as beach starts and exits, sighting, and bilateral breathing. Hitting the lake (or whatever) is also a chance to work through any fear you may have of swimming in open water and to get more comfortable in your wetsuit.

Don’t Overthink It

There is, of course, a limit to the degree to which swim workouts designed for the pool can be recreated in open water. Don’t waste energy worrying about this limit. Open-water swimming is still swimming, and as such it’s way better than not swimming at all, or any dryland swim substitute. Even if you skip the drills and intervals and just put in 20 or 30 minutes of steady Zone 2 freestyle, you’re moving in the right direction compared to where you probably were a few weeks ago.