Resources Library

ePublication of Australian Fitness Network

Most of us have clients who enjoy participating in the City2Surf, a half marathon and even the odd cycle race. These events are predominantly held in the winter, so what about the summer?

Have you considered recommending an open water swim or triathlon as a training goal? Not only will your client get a huge buzz out of training for, competing in and completing one of these fun events, but as their personal trainer you will be able to set some great smart goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-sensitive) to keep your clients motivation high during the summer months.

Open water swimming provides great exercise that works the cardiovascular system and almost every muscle group. By learning a few basics you will gain the confidence to encourage your clients to participate in this type of event.

Starting out

Like any other sport requiring specific training, you need to periodise your client’s program. Swimming requires a bit of patience, but once your client is in the routine of sticking to their training program and putting in a bit of effort, the fitness gains come rapidly.

First of all, you must determine your clients’ level of swimming fitness. A simple test to gauge this is a 400m time trail, where 400m under 6mins = Very good; 400m between 6 and 8mins = good; and 400m over 8mins = beginner level.

Once you have established this, it is a good idea to give your client a program that is at least 12 weeks in duration and which requires a minimum of two to three swims per week. This will give them time to build up some water confidence and to develop a ‘feel’ for the water.

The great Hungarian water polo coach Dénes Kemény, who won three Olympic gold medals with his team, has always encouraged his players to spend as much time in water as possible. Water is not a natural environment for humans, so we need to deliberately condition ourselves to it and consciously create opportunities to spend time in it.

Event duration will also play a part in planning a program for a client; racing 300m for example will not require as great a volume of training as that necessary for a 3km swim.

Preparation and training for swimming in the open water

Regardless of the event your client has chosen to partake in, good preparation is the key to how well they will perform. Open water swims vary in distance, ranging from 300m (usually as part of a sprint triathlon) to 3,000m. For beginners, a 300m swim as part of a sprint triathlon, or even a 1000m swim for stronger swimmers, represents a suitable starting point.

Type of pool

Encourage your clients to use a 50m swimming pool for their training if possible – the less turns they have to make, the better, as open water events require different skills to pool races. It will also work your client harder and help them achieve greater gains. You should encourage your client to do at least one swim per week in the actual open water, as this will be specific to their race and will help them gain considerable confidence. When training in open water, clients should always swim with a partner and swim in the areas of the ocean patrolled by lifeguards.


The equipment needed for open water swimming training is not extensive, and consists of:

• Goggles (preferably the ones you would use on the race day)
• Kick board (to keep the upper body afloat and the core active)
• Fins.

Training program

The following tables show a full 12-week training program for a 300m open water swim (for beginners).

Resistance training

Resistance training will unquestionably help your clients when they are doing an open water event. A big difference between swimming in a 50m pool and swimming in the ocean is that there are no lane ropes to stop the waves and wash pushing you around. There is also no nice black line on the bottom to guide you and keep you and your fellow competitors in line. Open water swimming requires good core strength and power to swim through the chop and waves. Commonly, open water swimmers will swim for some of the time with their head up (water polo-style), a very different technique to that used in pool lap swimming. For these reasons, the following exercises will increase the strength necessary to excel in the open water environment.



From a nutritional point of view, instruct your client not to eat a lot directly before the race. Open water swims are usually held in the early morning, so for breakfast on race day they need to have liquids and something that they know will sit well in their stomach, e.g. Sustagen drink or a banana. Dinner the night prior to the event is highly important – eating a healthy nutritious dinner balanced with low GI like salmon, green vegetables and nuts or foods that they know will make them feel good and satisfy them.


In the days leading up to the event, and on the day itself, hydration is vital! Hydration will effect performance – just because they are in the water, doesn’t mean they don’t sweat, and dehydration can lead to hypothermia. Your client should always have a water bottle close to hand.

On the day

Make sure your client stays warm before and after the swim – a warm comfortable jumper is a must. It is a good idea to always have two pairs of goggles on the day of the event and to use goggles with an ‘anti-fog’ layer and clean lens for better visibility (so that your client can see where they are swimming). Some goggles manufactures make open water goggles which have an orange coloured lens which highlights the water buoys. Sun protection should be on top of the list too, as heat strokes and sunburn are not uncommon when competing outdoors.

The tips below provide some useful insights for trainers and clients.

Know your course: Make sure you know your course, if you are not sure ask someone. The last thing you want is to be stressing out about which way you are supposed to be swimming. You should also pick the shortest way possible. As a personal trainer it would be professional for you to research the course and print out the route for your client. Better yet, attend the event and provide support for your client – a great way of building the trainer-client relationship.

Check the conditions: It is wise to know what the tide is doing and what way the drift is going. The easiest way to do this is to watch an
earlier race. Open water swims will usually have several groups going in different waves, with pro or elite swimmers taking part in the first race. You will know which way the water is moving by watching which way these earlier groups swim. In case of a strong drift, set yourself a different course to avoid unnecessary additional exertion. For example, if drift is going to the right (the group in front seems to be swimming off course to the right), pick a different marker than the first buoy. Instead, pick a marker to the left of the buoy and try to swim towards it. This will mean that by the time you reach the first course buoy, you will be straight on it and will not have to swim the extra distance.

Every 6 to 7 strokes put your head up: Every time you are about to take your sixth or seventh stroke, put your head up and have a look ahead of you to check whether you are on the right course.

Save your energy: Don’t be scared to get among the crowd. If you can swim just behind someone on their wash, you will save yourself
a lot of energy because the person in front will be breaking the water and thereby reducing the drag effect on you. When doing this however, be careful not to swim on top of someone’s feet as it is very annoying for the person in front and you might be asking for a foot in your face.

On the home stretch
: Have a look for a finish line or a finish marker (remember to find that marker before you start the race, most events will have a big finish banner to aim for). If swimming in the surf, take advantage of any swell going by. When you feel a swell go past, or you feel like you are getting lifted up, try to pick up your swim stroke rating – you will be pleasantly surprised by how much quicker you swim to the finish line if you do this. Trainers and clients looking to get involved in open water swimming can find out more information by visiting web sites such as and

After the event: The recovery

Your clients should have their post-event meal/snack with them at the event, and you should instruct them to try to eat within 30 minutes of finishing the race in order to replenish their muscles. Clients should drink plenty of water and keep warm while they have a full body stretch. If you are at the event with them, there will be nothing better for your client than you performing a full body assisted stretch while they relax and recover – and it’s a great way to continue building that bond. Wearing compression wear like Skins after events like open water swimming has proven to help muscle soreness the following day.

Finally, insist that your client has a good night’s sleep of at least 8 hours, and takes 24 hours off training – they’ve earned it! By the completion of their first open water swimming challenge they’ve worked hard, improved their fitness and achieved their smart goal, all the while strengthening their relationship with you. And with a bit of luck, this first adventure may just whet their appetite for a succession of future fitness challenges.

Member Only Content