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Triathlon-Specific Pool Drills for Open-Water Swim Prep

pool swim drills for triathlon

Dive Into Success: Pool Drills to Amplify Your Open Water Swim Game

If you’ve got your sights set on conquering the open-water swim leg of your upcoming triathlon, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to guide you through some fantastic pool drills that will have you gliding through lakes and seas like a fish in no time.

Let’s face it – preparing for an open water swim in the controlled environment of a swimming pool can be a game-changer. It’s where we fine-tune our techniques, build endurance, and boost our confidence. So, grab your swim cap and goggles, and let’s dive into some essential drills to prepare you for the challenges of the open water.

1. Sighting Practice

Magic5's Best Triathlon Swimming Goggles worn by Jan Frodeno in Open Water

In the open water, navigation is key. Mimic the conditions by incorporating sighting into your pool sessions. Every few strokes, lift your head to sight a fixed point in the pool. This will not only help you swim in a straight line but also prepare you for those unpredictable currents in the open water.

This is probably the most important skill to practice in your pool sessions to prepare for open water. Not swimming straight can add many meters/yards to your swim and lose your valuable seconds or minutes depending on the distance of your swim.

Sighting Drill:

  • Choose a Fixed Point: Identify a fixed point at the end of the pool, such as a lane marker, a clock, or any distinguishable object. This will be your sighting target. You can also use a water bottle or pull buoy as your marker.
  • Swim Normally: Begin by swimming your regular freestyle stroke. Focus on maintaining a steady and relaxed swim.
  • Incorporate Sighting: Every 6-8 strokes, lift your head slightly out of the water to quickly glance at your chosen sighting point. Keep the sighting motion efficient and minimal. Aim to keep your chin and nose in the water while the eyes look forward like a crocodile to maintain forward momentum.
  • Practice Breathing Timing: Time your sighting with your breathing to maintain a smooth rhythm. Sight then turn your head to the side to breathe in your normal way to keep your body as streamlined as you can. If you bob your head up high to breathe, then your legs will drop and you lose momentum and speed.
  • Adjust Your Technique: Ensure that your body position stays streamlined during the sighting. Avoid lifting your head too high, as it can create drag and slow you down. Instead, focus on a quick and efficient motion.
  • Build Consistency: Gradually increase the frequency of sightings as you become more comfortable with the drill. The goal is to integrate sighting seamlessly into your swim without disrupting your overall stroke.
  • Experiment with Different Conditions: When you do get a chance to swim in open water to simulate the unpredictability of race day, vary the conditions in your pool practice. Try sighting against the current or with the sun in different positions to prepare for the challenges you might face on race day.
  • Video Analysis: Record yourself during the sighting drill to review and refine your technique. Look for any unnecessary movements or deviations from your regular stroke and adjust accordingly.
  • Consistent Practice: Incorporate sighting drills into your regular pool sessions to build muscle memory. The more you practice, the more confident and efficient you’ll become when navigating the open water.

By consistently integrating sighting drills into your pool training, you’ll enhance your ability to navigate and stay on course during the open water swim leg of your triathlon.

2. Drafting Simulation

triathlon swim

Drafting is like catching a free ride in the swimming world and can save your energy and keep you fresher for the bike leg. Studies indicate that maintaining a distance of 50 cm behind a fellow athlete can result in a significant 21% reduction in drag coefficient. 

Additionally, swimming alongside another athlete may lead to a drag reduction of approximately 7%. In events like the Olympic or IRONMAN 70.3 Triathlon, adopting these drafting techniques could potentially save you up to two valuable minutes.

Pair up with a buddy in the pool and take turns leading. This simulates the close-quarters swimming you’ll encounter during the chaotic start of an open water race. Practice communication and maintain a steady pace for an added challenge.

Drafting Simulations in the Pool:

  • Find a Swim Buddy: Team up with a swimmer who matches your pace. Having a partner is crucial for effective drafting simulations.
  • Hip Drafting: Designate one person as the leader and the other as the follower. The follower positions themselves slightly to the side and behind the leader’s hip. Practice swimming in this position to experience the reduced resistance of drafting off the hip. Arm stroke timing is key here and it may take a little practice to get this right.
  • Toe Drafting: Switch roles and practice drafting off the leader’s toes. The follower positions themselves right behind the leader, taking advantage of the decreased drag created by the leader’s forward movement. Practice tapping each other’s toes to get used this as it may happen in the race.
  • Triangle Formation: Introduce a third swimmer to form a triangle. Experiment with different configurations, where each swimmer takes turns leading. This mimics the changing dynamics of open water swims and helps improve adaptability.
  • Diamond Formation: Include a fourth swimmer to create a diamond formation. Rotate positions within the diamond to experience drafting in a more complex setting, preparing you for scenarios where multiple swimmers are present.
  • Varying Speeds: Practice variations in speed within the formations. Increase and decrease pace to simulate real-world conditions, helping swimmers adapt to different speeds and scenarios.
  • Lane Courtesy: Be mindful of other swimmers in the pool. Choose a lane where you can conduct drafting simulations without disrupting the flow of other athletes.
  • Reflect and Adjust: After each session, discuss with your swim buddy(s) to identify areas for improvement. Analyze the effectiveness of your drafting techniques and adjust as needed.
  • Consistent Practice: By focusing on drafting off the hip and toes, as well as experimenting with formations like triangles and diamonds, you’ll enhance your drafting skills and be better equipped for the challenges of open-water swimming. 

3. Bilateral Breathing

triathlon swim drills bilateral breathing

In the open water, you never know which side the waves are coming from. Train your respiratory muscles by incorporating bilateral breathing into your routine. This not only enhances your lung capacity but also ensures you’re ready to tackle waves and currents from any direction.

Here’s how to practice bilateral breathing:

  • Start small. practice kicking on your side (or about 45 degrees, similar to your typical body rotation while swimming freestyle) with one lead arm reaching forward. Then switch sides.
  • Then make the side-switching more frequent.
  • Then add three full strokes between each side-switch. i.e., three strokes, kick on the side for three seconds, three strokes, kick on the other side for three seconds, three strokes, etc.
  • Use fins at first, then as you develop your bilateral comfort, take them off.
  • Then once you’ve mastered these drills, try some sustained swims (say, 500m) where you breathe right for 2 laps, then breathe left for 2 laps, then right, then left, etc.

The most common reason for lack of comfort breathing on one side is insufficient body rotation to the weak side (often along with over-rotation to the strong side). Practice over-exaggerating your rotation to the weak side. You should not be straining your neck to get a breath, most of the rotation for breathing comes from the body (hips and shoulders), not the head.

Another way to help you breathe and rotate to both sides evenly is to practice single-arm freestyle as one length right-only, then one length left-only. Make sure you are rotating evenly on both sides, even if you’re only stroking with one arm.

4. Treading Water Intervals

open water swim drills triathlon

Prepare for those moments when you may need to pause and assess your surroundings. Incorporate treading water intervals into your pool sessions. This will enhance your ability to stay afloat, calm your nerves, and allow you to regain your bearings in the open water.

5. Mass Start Simulation

mass start open water swim drills triathlon

The chaotic mass start is a hallmark of open-water races. Recreate this scenario in the pool by starting your swim with a group of fellow athletes. Navigate through the controlled chaos, practice maintaining your pace, and develop the mental toughness needed for the real deal.

You may need to remove lane ropes for this one so may need a planned group or squad session to implement this.

6. Open Water Simulation Sets and Swimming Straight

triathlon open water swim drills breathing

Incorporate longer swims into your training, mimicking the duration of your open water race. This will not only build endurance but also familiarize you with the mental and physical demands of an extended swim. 

Challenge yourself by gradually increasing the distance to match the requirements of your upcoming triathlon. Challenge yourself further by not pushing off the wall – there are no walls in the lake or sea, and this will give you a true feel of the distance you are training for.

Another tip is to swim a length or half a length to see if you veer to the right or left if there are no black lines to follow. How did you do? Did you swim straight? 

Spotting imbalances in your swimming early can help you be a straighter and more efficient swimmer. If you only breathe to one side, you can try this again using bi-lateral breathing – did you swim straighter and not hit the lane rope? If you swam straighter then practice your bi-lateral swimming until it’s second nature.


Remember, the pool is your training ground, your laboratory for success in the open water. Stay consistent with these drills and skills, focus on refining your technique, and visualize yourself conquering that open water swim on race day. 

With dedication and these pool-perfected skills, you’ll be riding the waves of triumph in no time. 

Open Water Swimming Drills and Skills FAQ

triathlon pool swim drills

Why is it essential to practice open-water swimming drills in a pool first? 

Pool sessions provide a controlled environment for refining techniques, building endurance, and mastering essential skills before facing the unpredictable conditions of open water. Pool drills allow swimmers to focus on specific aspects of their stroke and breathing without external factors such as waves or currents.

How can I simulate open water conditions in a pool? 

To simulate open water conditions, incorporate drills like sighting practice, drafting simulations, and treading water intervals. These drills help you adapt to the challenges of navigation, swimming in close proximity to others, and staying afloat in the absence of continuous forward motion.

What are the key skills to develop for open-water swimming? 

Essential skills for open-water swimming include sighting, bilateral breathing, drafting, and treading water. These skills enhance navigation, breathing adaptability, and the ability to swim in close proximity to others, crucial for successful open-water swims.

How can I improve my sighting technique for open water swimming? 

Incorporate sighting drills in the pool, lifting your head every few strokes to practice sighting a fixed point. Focus on efficient and minimal head movement, maintaining body position, and timing your breaths with the sighting motion.

What is drafting, and how can I practice it in the pool? 

Drafting involves swimming closely behind or beside another swimmer to reduce drag. In the pool, practice drafting off the hip and off the toes of a training partner. Experiment with different formations like triangles and diamonds to simulate real-world scenarios.

Are there specific drills for improving breath control in open water? 

Yes, the 3, 5, 7 breathing drill is an effective way to enhance breath control. Practice breathing every 3, 5, and 7 strokes, gradually increasing the count. This drill helps swimmers develop a rhythmic breathing pattern and adaptability to different stroke intervals.

How can I prepare for the mass start of an open water race? 

Simulate mass starts in the pool by practicing group swims. Start with a small group of training partners and navigate through the controlled chaos. This helps build mental toughness and adaptability for the crowded conditions of open water races.

What is the importance of treading water in open water swimming? 

Treading water is crucial for regaining bearings, resting, and managing unexpected situations. Integrate treading water intervals into your pool sessions to enhance your ability to stay afloat and remain calm in open water.

How often should I practice open water swimming drills? 

Consistency is key. Aim to incorporate open-water swimming drills into your regular pool sessions at least once or twice a week. Regular practice will help you build confidence, refine skills, and prepare for the unique challenges of open water swims.

Karen Parnell
Karen Parnell
Triathlon Coach at Chili Tri | Website

Karen Parnell is a Level 3 British Triathlon Coach, 8020 Endurance and IRONMAN Certified Coach, WOWSA Level 3 open water swimming coach, and NASM Personal Trainer and Sports Technology Writer. Learn more about Karen.