Sample Workouts

We have collected some sample open water workouts from some of the best local open water swim coaches around. Check these out, and if one works for you, memorize the essentials of it, or print it off and bring it with you to the lake.  And if you are really keen, you can even put it in a Ziploc bag, carry it inside a sleeve of your wetsuit, or attach it to a buoy!

#1: The Nick Rabinovitch workout

Title: Stroke Balance

Theme: Drill/Skills

Audience: Beginner through Advanced (all levels)

Total distance: 1-2 loops – or 1200-2400m

Intro: This is a great workout for beginners to help their stroke feel smoother, easier and more balanced. For advanced swimmers, this is away to return to some important fundamentals that will help with swimming straighter in open water where there are no lines or lane ropes as visual cues.

Balance comes from 3 major components – breathing, kick, and pull. 

  1. Warm-up will focus on the breathing. In fact, all warm-ups in swimming should include a focus on breathing. Depending on your ability, do 300-600 (~½ to a full length of the course) front crawl breathing every 3 strokes.

Important points:

  • focus more on exhaling on strokes 1 & 2, than on inhaling on 3. This may feel like you are exhaling more than you are inhaling, but that perception is normal and good.  Once trained, you will be amazed how quickly you can take in a lung-full of air!
  • Try to make the exhale relaxed while your face is in the water, almost like you are sighing. Do not purse your lips to blow out. Make sure that you have completely exhaled by the the time you are turning your head to inhale.
  • Balance the amount of roll you do to either side. Breathing every 3 also forces you to breathe to both sides. Many people have a dominant side and roll more to that side. If you can, have someone watch you and provide feedback on whether your roll is balanced. Also, your shoulders should roll WITH your head when you breathe.  Breathing “every three” ensures your swimming is symmetrical, and therefore straight.
  1. After warm-up, is kick. Depending on ability, do 300-600 broken into 75s by the buoys of “kickstart” drill. Kickstart is when you start from the buoy with just streamlined kick, but bring in your normal pull after a short distance (~5m) and continue full stroke to the next buoy. Repeat this drill for each buoy over the distance. You should finish at the end buoy (at 600m) before you turn back.

Important points:

  • Streamlined is hands straight out in front, focused on a flat, horizontal body position – legs NOT dragging down.
  • Kick should be a tight, small but steady kick, with little knee bend.
  • Pay attention to what your legs do when the arms begin. Kick should stay small and tight, and not open up to a wider kick.
  • Pay attention to what your legs do when you breathe. Kick should stay small and tight, and not open up to a wider kick. Many people, especially runners, will scissor kick or wide-kick to balance their stroke when they turn to breathe. Their upper body is off balance and they use legs to counter-balance. This wide kick causes increased resistance and slows you down. Your kick should be streamlined at all times.

Note: Triathletes typically don’t need or want to use their kick much during the swim, and save their legs for the bike and run. This is fine, but they still benefit from keeping their legs streamlined and balanced. The kick can be very light, but still small and steady–enough to stay horizontal, with legs “hidden” behind the slipstream of your body.

  1. Combine breathing and kick. Swim the 600m straight line return to the first (paddle trail) buoy, trying to combine elements of the first 2 sets. Think about your breathing – exhale on 1-2, inhale on 3 AND on keeping your kick small and steady.
  1. Pull – wide entry. Depending on ability, do 300-600 stopping and restarting every 75-150 (every buoy or every other buoy)

Important points:

  • Before you start from each buoy over the distance, look at the next buoy start by pointing the top of your head at that next buoy. Keep visualizing that next buoy as you swim and have your right arm enter the water just to the right of where you visualize the buoy and left arms enter just to the left of where you visualize the buoy. You will probably need to readjust your direction each time you sight (life your head and look).
  • Many swimmers, experienced ones included, overreach on their entry. This means their right arm enters straight above or to the left of their head, and/or the left arm enters straight above or to the right of their head. This can cause a slight side-to-side motion when the overreach in even, or a drift to one side when it is uneven. Instead, your arms should enter directly above or slightly outside the shoulder, not your head.
  • If you find that you consistently drift to the left, you are probably overreaching with your right arm, and need to enter wider with that arm. Conversely, drifting to the right probably means you overreach with your left. Adjust your entry as needed.
  • As you get better at swimming straighter (more balanced) you can sight less often. Sighting can burn more energy and slow you down if done too often (as your head rises, your lower body drops, increasing drag). However, making sure you swim straight is very important to efficiency. Sight as often as you need to swim straight. Working on your balance can reduce that need.

Optional advanced drill: Jedi swimmingThis is basically just swimming with your eyes closed. The point is to take away the visual cues that let you correct any stroke imbalance you might have. Swim anywhere from 20-50m with your eyes closed straight toward a buoy. Stop and open your eyes. If you have drifted left, you probably overreach with your right and need to enter that arm wider. Or, if you drift right, it is the opposite. Repeat this drill as needed until you are swimming relatively straight. Be careful with this drill – avoid doing this when close to other swimmers or if there is debris in the water. Use your common sense.

  1. You should be at the end buoy again. Swim another 300m trying to combine all 3 elements. In your mind, switch your focus between breathing, kick and pull. You may be only able to do one at a time, but as you practice, it will come more naturally until you can do all 3 at once. 
    Finish with a relaxed “cooldown” swim, focussing on swimming smooth, with a relaxed and controlled breathing rhythm.


#2: The Emily Epp Workouts

As a teenager, Emily Epp swam the English Channel solo in 2017.

Practice 1: Sighting Practice at Cedar Creek (Beginner to Intermediate)

Sighting is a short lift of the head to get your eyes enough out of the water to see ahead of you.  It should happen just as one of your arms extends fully forward over your head, and can be conveniently associated with a breath cycle (as soon as your arm reaches forward, lift your head while looking forward just before you turn your head to breathe).

Sighting too frequently can disrupt your body position and your swim speed, and can even make your neck sore. Sighting too infrequently can cause you to drift off course, increasing the distance you need to swim, and therefore adding time to your swim.



After a 300m easy warm-up swim to the 4th buoy, you will practice sighting for each buoy of the loop, which are 75m apart.


  1. Swim to the next buoy, sighting every 3 strokes.

Were you able to do this smoothly, without loss of swim speed? Most swimmers will find this frequency hard to maintain without losing their horizontal body position. Did you stay fairly straight? You should have!  Did you lift your eyes out of the water enough to see the next buoy? In wavy conditions, you may not always be able to see over even a small wave. Were you able to sight equally well after a left-sided arm stroke and a right sided arm stroke? It takes practice to become as efficient and comfortable sighting off of both a left-sided and a right-sided arm-stroke.


  1. Swim to the next buoy sighting every 6 strokes

Ask yourself the same questions.  Were you still swimming straight or were your drifting off target significantly. Were you always drifting to the same side?  Were waves or wind affecting you? Alternatively, there may be a mechanical reason why your swim stroke is asymmetrical.  You may need some one-on-one swim coaching.


Swim to the last buoy varying your sighting frequency, depending on how straight you are swimming.  Practice sighting after both left and right sided arm strokes. Do the 600m return length further practicing exactly the same way. If you think you are a very symmetrical swimmer, and the water is fairly flat, try sighting every 9 or even every twelve strokes.  On windy or wavy days, you will find that your sighting will have to be more frequent.

  1. Practice sighting on a more distant object, such as a tree, a building, or a mountain peak or valley.

Sighting for more distant objects (usually on land) keeps you swimming straighter, especially if you cannot see a far shoreline or marker buoy that is hidden by waves or swells, darkness, bright sun, or fog. Where possible, try to see what distant sighting points are most helpful before you get into the water (you can usually see them much better when you are standing up and on land).  As you swim, you may see that a buoy that you are swimming toward is exactly in line with a tree or house on land, or even a distant mountain top. You will find that water conditions will change how frequently you will need to sight, so every day swimming is a new day to practice a different cadence of sighting.

  1. Swim straight by using other cues

If you are unable to see straight in front of you due to excess glare, bright sunshine, or large swells, you can still chart a straight course using other cues.  1) Notice the sand ripples below you (if you are in shallow water)—they will tend to follow the contour of the shore. 2) If the sun is very bright, notice where in your field of vision the sun is, and keep it positioned there.  For example, if the sun is in front of you, but slightly to your left, keep it there, and perhaps even notice if your shadow is staying consistently in the same place. And 3), if you are swimming in a pack of swimmers, consider the direction that most of them are going—chances are that it is where you need to go as well.  This is the same strategy that military pilots use when flying in formation.

Practice 2: Endurance/ speed change (Beginner to Advanced)


Having the ability to shift gears in open water swimming is important, both to adapt to race conditions (such as trying to catch onto another swimmers’ draft or to deal with increasing waves and swells), and to improve endurance and fitness.

1) Warm-up

During an easy warm up swim of 300-600 meters, establish a regular breathing cadence and a reliable sighting pattern, locating the sun and any necessary sight points on land. If you are new to the Cedar Creek Swim Loop, check out the course’s line of buoys—they should all be about 75 meters apart.

2) Speedwork

After your warmup, swim at an easy pace to the next buoy, (75m away) before accelerating a little harder to the second (150m) buoy, then sprint to the 3rd (225m) buoy. Then return to the easy cadence that you used initially. Repeat this all the way to the end of the course.

Were you able to keep your breathing under control in both the accelerative and the decelerative phases? And you were still able to sight sufficiently well and swim straight?

3) Build set

Finally, for an endurance challenge, once you’ve hit one end of the swim course, build speed throughout a 300m distance (the half-way point of the course (which is marked by a fat buoy).  Take a one minute rest, and then repeat to the end of the course.

4) Cooldown

On the return leg ,you can repeat the drill above, or just finish off with an easy swim as a cooldown, perhaps with one build segment to full sprint for 75 meters somewhere in the middle. Depending on what you are training for, you can always do another loop to solidify some of your learned skills. Most importantly, make sure you are having fun!

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