Which is better? Pool practice or Open Water?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on November 28th, 2009

TI Coach John Beaty of Chattanooga posted this query on the TI Coaches Forum: Having worked with people over the years who do a lot of open water swimming, either tri’s or open water races, I have wondered what is inviting to them about swimming in open water. Personally, I am a pool swimmer. I love the backstroke events and the 100-200 freestyles. But I have never been able to understand the attraction to open water. I have done open water swims and races but have yet to be “bitten by the bug.”

I love pools…lane lines, starting blocks and walls. So, I ask of ya’ll, what do you find enjoyable about the open water? Help me understand so that at our Workshops, I can have a better understanding of why so many TI students aspire to open water.

There were many responses from other TI coaches relating the natural beauty and sense of freedom they’ve experienced in open water. I decided to focus on the learning and improvement advantages of each. Combining pool and open water practice gives you the best of both worlds. Here are excerpts from my response:


Being able to help our students maximize the benefits of pool practice is important because that’s where most swimming happens. Teaching open water skills gives us nearly limitless Kaizen Opportunities with which to inspire our students. All things being equal I prefer to swim in open water at every opportunity, yet I still manage to have great experiences in the pool by focusing on what I can do better there than in open water. So here’s my summary of what I see as the advantages of each:

In the pool

1) I can vary the stimulus to my brain and nervous system in almost limitless ways, with changes in form (different drills and strokes) Stroke Length, Stroke Rate, etc. as frequently as every 25 yards or several times a minute. So many different stimuli and the ability to change inputs with great frequency maximizes what neuroscientists call Synaptic Plasticity – the ability of the brain to learn and adapt to new tasks and “shift gears” fluidly and seamlessly.

2) Being able to swim standard distances, and precisely measure speed and efficiency, gives me “empirical measures” to compare efforts with outcomes. This helps me continually refine my efforts.

3) Over time I can precisely track improvement by repeating all the elements of any set for which I’ve recorded my results – or exactly compare one race to another.

4) Swimming much shorter distances, broken frequently by moments of inactivity/recovery (pushoffs) facilitates higher levels of metabolic intensity (heart and respiration rate, muscle fiber recruitment) than is usually possible in open water.

In open water

1) The unpredictable and variable conditions of open water gives me the opportunity to develop an entirely new range of skills. Indeed, most pool swimmers need to learn to swim all over again, when they transition to open water.

2) The unpredictability and variability – and absence of familiar “structure” – in open water forces me to be much more flexible, resourceful and opportunistic. This helps develop a greatly expanded set of “strategic circuits” in my brain.

3) Swimming long unbroken distances (potentially 1000s of uninterrupted strokes) with a single “stroke thought” maximizes the development of Synaptic Strength – making motor programs (“skill circuits”) more robust, more resistant to breakdown and more automatic.

4) Swimming longer unbroken distances also facilitates higher levels of metabolic, motor and mental endurance.

If our primary goal is Continuous Improvement, a combination of pool and open water is unbeatable.

Want to enjoy open water and learn to maximize its benefits? Join us at an Open Water Experience camp in January in the Virgin Islands or in March in Hawaii. Here’s a taste of a TI Open Water camp experience:


2 Responses to “Which is better? Pool practice or Open Water?”

  1. rozsud says:

    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  2. Please feel free to quote me in your blog. I appreciate your interest.

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