Jonny Brownlee on the pool swimming drills to do now to get faster in open water

Struggling to translate your pool speed to open water? Jonny Brownlee shares the pool swimming drills you can start doing now, to fine tune your skills. Plus an example main set you can work on to help you get faster at open water swimming in time for triathlon race season.

Writer & Long Course Triathlete
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Frustrated with your race day swim splits? For plenty of triathletes, getting faster at open water swimming can feel like an against the tide struggle. Particularly when any speed gains you’ve managed to find in the pool over the winter, don’t seem to translate to the open water.

Of course there are plenty of race day swim mistakes that could be costing you valuable time. But more often than not, improving your open water swimming comes down to practice. And that’s easier said than done. Because for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, the timeframe between the water outdoors getting warm enough to comfortably swim in and the start of race season can be pretty short.

So what can you be doing now, while you’re still training in the pool, to improve your open water swimming? We caught up with pro triathlete and Olympian Jonny Brownlee to get his tips on the pool swimming drills you can do now that’ll help you to swim faster in open water once it’s time to dig the wetsuit out again. Plus, Brownlee shares an example swim set that’ll help you to dial in your race pace.

Pool swimming drills to practice for open water

With technique being so central to swimming efficiently, we’ll often spend all of our time focusing on drills to improve things like hand entry and body position. Which are definitely important. But it’s also key to remember that swimming in open water brings with it a specific set of skills such as sighting, drafting and being able to cope with the unexpected. Get those nailed, and you’ll easily see improvements in your triathlon swim times.

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Use the head up polo drill to practice sighting

Being able to sight efficiently in open water, particularly in choppy conditions, is a vital skill to make sure that you stay on course and don’t lose time by adding extra distance.

Jonny Brownlee recommends incorporating the ‘head up polo’ drill into your pool sets to help you get used to the change in position that comes with lifting your head to sight. This drill involves swimming front crawl with your head lifted out of the water looking forwards, while you do several continuous front crawl strokes. Focus on pulling as soon as your hand enters the water, try to keep your legs as lifted as possible and don’t forget to kick.

Sighting in choppy open water swims
The head up drill is a great way to practice sighting efficiently in choppy or congested water.

While we’ll typically try to use the ‘crocodile eyes’ method of sighting – incorporating a quick glance forward as you turn your head to breathe without disrupting your stroke. You might find that in a congested swim start or choppy ocean swims, this technique is not adequate to get a good look at where you’re going. The head up polo drill will help you to get better at taking a longer look forward, without drastically slowing down your pace – or having to switch to breaststroke. The drill is pretty hard work, so you might want to start by doing half a length head up and then switch back to normal swimming for the remainder of the length.

Practice deep water starts

A deep water start refers to a race where you’re in the water before the clock starts and you have to go from treading water to swimming. Deep water starts can be intimidating for plenty of age-groupers because it’s difficult to get up to speed. And, as everyone lifts their legs behind them, the abundance of flailing limbs can make you feel like you’re in a boxing match rather than a triathlon.

Jonny recommends practicing your deep water starts in the swimming pool. “If possible do it with two other people in a lane, and start next to each other,” Brownlee says. This will help you to get used to getting up to pace, and having other people right next to you as you all try to find space in the water. Finding the best technique to get going, and reducing the fear factor of a crowded deep water start, will help you to swim faster and feel more confident on race day.  

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Miss some of your turns at the wall on purpose

One reason you might notice your pool times are faster than your open water times is the free speed you get from pushing off the wall. “Practice missing your turns on purpose,” Jonny suggests. “Don’t push off the wall, so that you have to generate the speed yourself.”

Every time you push off the wall, you get a boost of speed and a gliding effect that acts as a microbreak. In open water, you’ll be swimming non-stop. Adding in deliberate missed turns is a great way to prepare for the open water and improve your swimming endurance.

Practice drafting

If you’re not drafting during the swim in a triathlon, you’re missing out on a serious amount of free speed. Drafting efficiently takes practice – and confidence. And if you’re not used to drafting, trying to practice in a race scenario might be off putting.

Underwater view of open water swimmers
Practice drafting so you can get on the feet of faster swimmers during your race.

Jonny suggests practicing your drafting in the pool, where you can easily fine tune the best place to swim to get the maximum draft effect. And the controlled pool environment feels less daunting than doing it in open water straight off the bat. “Practice drafting with others in the pool. Complete 800m repeats, changing the person on the front every 200m.”

Use your pool swims to practice dealing with the unexpected

On race day when adrenaline is high, something as simple as getting your goggles knocked can send you into a panic. The pool is the perfect environment to try and rehearse what you’ll do in various scenarios you might encounter during a race.

“Fill your goggles half with water in the pool so you can get used to what it feels like if they get knocked,” says Jonny. This also gives you the opportunity to practice what you’ll do to deal with that scenario. “Are you better keeping them on and swimming on your back to get rid of the water?” You’ll only find out by giving it a go.

Using your pool swims to practice dealing with any issues you might encounter during a race will help you to stay calm and get back into a rhythm faster if things don’t quite go to plan in open water.

Jonny Brownlee at a swimming pool in Neom ahead of the 2022 Super League race.
[Photo credit: Bartlomiej Zborowski / Super League Triathlon]

Jonny Brownlee’s swim set to help you dial in your race pace

Warm up done. Drills ticked off. Open water skills practiced. Now what? There are also main swim sets you can start incorporating into your training schedule that will get you race day ready.

“I like to practice getting out quick, and then settling into a pace,” says Jonny. That ability to get away quickly and then settle in is something that’ll come in handy for all triathletes. Whether you’re racing the Iron-distance and you want to be able to get some space in the water. Or you’re racing sprints and you want to hold on to the front pack without blowing up.


Repeat the whole set below twice in each session.

+ 2 x 50m max effort, taking 20 seconds rest between each rep.
+ 4 x 200m: start each rep hard before settling into your sustainable race pace. Take 20 seconds recovery after each 200.

Use your pool training sessions to dial in these open water skills, and you’ll be in good shape for your best swim season yet once it’s time to dig out the wetsuit again!

Get race day ready with training plans, wetsuits, gear and more at SBRX.

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Written by
Jenny Lucas-Hill
Jenny Lucas-Hill is a writer, content creator and communications professional. A long-distance triathlon enthusiast, she has three full Iron-distance finishes to date & also loves watching the sport.


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