Open-water swimming: advice from Bernd Berkhahn, coach of the world champion Florian Wellbrock

Training & Technique
Written by: Arena at 4 August '20 0
You are reading: Open-water swimming: advice from Bernd Berkhahn, coach of the world champion Florian Wellbrock
Photo credit: ©JoKleindl

Due to the temporary closure of swimming pools due to Covid19, open-water swimming has suddenly become extremely important. At the moment, lots of people who usually swim in the pool and as well as many beginners are discovering outdoor swimming. But training in this different environment poses various challenges even for more experienced swimmers.

We asked Bernd Berkhahn, a German national team coach and trainer of the world champion Florian Wellbrock, to give us some tips.

From the pool to open water: what are the technical flaws we need to focus on most?

My advice is to use your best swim technique in open water, just as if you were swimming in the pool. The main difficulty in open water is to try and swim the same way you swim in the pool, while at the same time raising your head to see where you are going. This means you need to maintain a good body position in the water, so you must not let your arms or legs sink too much. When swimming freestyle you need to rotate properly along the longitudinal axis and recover your arms properly. Your leg kick should be as economical as possible; do not kick too hard or you will waste energy, but make sure you use your legs to stop the muscles from getting cold.

For anybody who is used to swimming in a pool and would like to try open-water swimming: how can we work on our power and endurance?

My advice for improving your endurance is to train more. Increase your mileage and devise longer training sessions. You can also work on your endurance out of the water through specific training sessions, like running or cycling. It is vital to strengthen your core and work on your arm strength, for example by using a rope, doing push-ups or taking CrossFit/Pilates classes. It is also important to work on the flexibility of your upper body by doing specific exercises for your hip flexors. There is always a risk of rotating your upper body too far when swimming in open water, so training on dry land can help improve the stability of your chest muscles.

Breathing rhythm and technique: what are your tips for training these two aspects of open-water swimming?

I would advise all aspiring open-water swimmers to practice breathing in the pool before heading into the open water. I suggest rotating your head to the right and left regularly so you know where you are in the water. For example, three strokes before looking left and then three strokes before looking right. It is important to be able to change direction and adjust your pace and rhythm to the conditions you have to deal with. In open water you need to be flexible because the wind, waves and environmental factors change all the time. Swimmers must be able to adjust their breathing rhythm and technique to the conditions they encounter.

The fact you do not need to turn in open water is another tricky issue.

You get the chance to breathe for a second while you perform a tumble turn in the pool: your exertion is momentarily reduced, your heart rate drops, and your body recovers. Not having to turn is a different kind of challenge. This means you must focus on long workouts and gradually increase the duration of your open water training sessions. For example, “swim for one minute with a short break, then two minutes with a short break, then three minutes followed by a short break and so on, so your body gradually gets used to the constant effort without tiring too quickly.

Training aids: what kind do you recommend for open-water swimming?

Open-water swimming places most stress on your arms, so you need to work on the strength and endurance of your arm stroke in the pool. One tip is to use some kind of device that slows you down while training, such as swimsuit with a drag effect or similar accessories, but I only advise using them in the pool as preparatory training. Other useful devices are a GPS watch that allows you to measure the exact distance and pace you swim or a float that can act as a “safety buoy” to grab hold of in emergencies and also be used to let boats, water scooters and other potential hazards in the sea/lake know exactly where you are. Experienced swimmers can also use hand paddles, but make sure you have worked sufficiently on your arm stroke endurance beforehand.

New to open-water swimming: what tips do you have for beginners?

As general advice, I would suggest beginning as soon as possible. By which I mean both as young as possible and as early in the season as possible. The sooner you begin swimming in open water all year round, the sooner you get used to the water temperatures and strength/endurance it takes. Constantly changing the place and conditions in which you swim (saltwater, lakes, big waves, rivers, currents) will make you more flexible and enable you to cope with any situations you come across.

Safety is a crucial factor

You should never swim alone in open waters. There should always be somebody watching you out of the water or a swimming partner swimming with us (for example, using a SUP). And, if possible, you should always have a marker buoy with you.

Water temperature: how do you handle the cold?

A wetsuit is, of course, a big help when the water is cold. In any case, you should occasionally swim in an ordinary swimsuit. Even if we can only stand the cold for just 10 minutes to begin with, that is long enough for your body to get used to these temperatures and teach it to adapt. After swimming in a wetsuit, it can, for example, be useful to them swim a short distance without a wetsuit and then gradually increase the length of time we swim without one.

Bear in mind that the national junior team began training in open waters at temperatures of around 14° at the end of April. And some even swam without a wetsuit ?

So, do not waste any more time, the sea and lakes are waiting for you!


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