Considering what is happening at the moment, lots of swimmers are considering training more (or starting to train) in open water. Here are some tips from Fabrizio Antonelli, Gregorio Paltrinieri’s coach.
From the viewpoint of technique, freestyle is the preferred stroke due to the simple fact that it is less energy consuming to swim freestyle at any given speed compared to other strokes, so you need to focus on your freestyle swim stroke.
As regards any adjustments compared to swimming in the pool, I think the most interesting thing is how to adapt our swim stroke to the conditions we encounter.
This is a key factor both for top-level swimmers and amateurs taking to the open waters for the first time, because the weather/water conditions can change at any moment: this means you have to work hard on your proprioceptive skills so you can master and control your swim stroke properly both in terms of making “technical adjustments” to strengthen or lengthen your stroke and from a coordination viewpoint. That is because it can be useful to be able to adapt your stroke to the sea/open water conditions in which you are racing or training.
So, even though you are still swimming freestyle, changing your coordination, speeding up/slowing down your leg kick or altering your stroke rate are very important factors that can make a real difference.
Going back to what we have just said, I think the most important factor even from a mental viewpoint is to learn how to adapt to different situations: this will allow you to cope more effectively with different weather, sea and wind conditions or different currents during races.
The better prepared we are from this viewpoint, the better we will be able to adapt to the conditions we have to deal with.
Swimming is a “performance sport” in the pool, because race conditions are always the same and so you can train in these same conditions. Unlike swimming in a pool, long-distance open water swimming is a “situation” as well as a “performance” sport, so I think its vital to be mentally flexible as well as being able to suffer (anybody getting involved in the sport must like suffering!) and so, once again, it is crucial to be able to adapt to different situations.
I would strongly advise against training alone in open water. Apart from the fact that it is more performance-enhancing to train with a partner, it is mainly a question of safety. Of course, I cannot ban training alone, but nobody should be allowed to train alone: the sea, a lake or other open water settings can always conceal hidden perils, and it is always a good idea to have company or, in other words, at least one training partner.
From a competitive viewpoint, it is much more performance-enhancing: you do not feel the effort as much when you train with somebody else, and so you can give a little bit more, even just by staying in the slipstream. From this point of view, you will find there is lots to learn!
Training is also more effective because you can simulate race conditions more accurately. But apart from that, I would like to emphasise once again that safety is a crucial factor in open waters, so do not under any circumstances swim alone.
There’s a big difference between swimming in a normal swimsuit and a wetsuit; indeed, I would say there is a huge difference. Of course, people adapt differently to this kind of swimsuit. Going back again to what we said earlier, being able to adapt your swim stroke to a wetsuit can give a swimmer a competitive edge.
A good way of learning how to train in a wetsuit is to work on your shoulders to try and avoid strains due to wearing a wetsuit: the recovery phase is almost effortless when wearing a normal swimsuit, but it is an active part of the swim stroke when wearing a wetsuit, since you need to overcome the resistance posed by the wetsuit itself. Most of the work is done by your shoulders, so you need to train them properly.
My advice is to always take it easy at first; in other words, begin slowly and patiently and then gradually build up your training. Do not overdo it at your first sessions, you need to train in a sort of “pyramid” fashion starting at the base. The base of this pyramid is most certainly good technique and good general training, which will then allow you to make more specific adaptations for long-distance swimming, most notably learning first how to swim and then how to race in a wetsuit, which, as I have already said, is almost a different sport!