In praise of the pool

by Evan Morrison. 20 July 2011.

Pools sometimes get a bad rap among open water swimmers. Marathon swimmers who live outside the Sun Belt are known to bemoan long winter hours in the “concrete prison.” David Barra memorably quipped to the New York Times:

The free spirits want to be outdoors, and have a relationship with a body of water…. You don’t have a relationship with a chlorine box.

Hearst Castle. San Simeon, CA.

But pools have their uses – even for marathon swimmers. Especially if one of your goals is to get faster. Alex Kostich was a U.S. National Teamer, an All-American distance swimmer at Stanford, and a training partner of Janet Evans in her prime. Now 41, Kostich is possibly the fastest Masters open-water swimmer in the country at the short distances (up to 5K). In the July/August issue of USMS Swimmer, here’s what he had to say about pools:

The easiest and most efficient way to get faster in open water is to do quality work in the pool.

Kostich is an open water specialist. He lives in Los Angeles. Yet he doesn’t train in open water.

He isn’t unique in this regard. Mark Warkentin, who also lives on the California coast, did nearly 100% of his training for the 2008 Olympic 10K in pools. Take a poll of the current open-water National Teamers, and you’re likely to find that all of them do the vast majority of their training in pools.

Pools are useful because they make training quantifiable, measurable, and precise. In pools there is accountability and objectivity. Ironically, many of the factors that make open water enjoyable - its freedom and unpredictability - are the same ones that make it less than ideal as a training environment.

The two best ways to get faster are to (1) improve your technique, and (2) improve your cardiovascular conditioning. In the pool, it’s easier to monitor and adjust technique. In the pool, it’s also easier to do the “quality” work necessary to improve your conditioning. That said, training in open water is useful, I believe, in three regards:

  1. Cold water acclimation. There simply is no substitute (including ice baths). If you want to swim in cold water, swim in cold water.
  2. Rough water acclimation. This is an area where I’ve really improved since I moved to Chicago last year. My success in the choppy first few miles of Tampa and the choppy last 10 miles of MIMS was probably due, in part, to my training in Lake Michigan (which is, more often the not, choppy).
  3. Over-distance training. For the long (10K+) swims that are an essential (if only occasional) element in the marathon swimmer’s training regimen, I find open water preferable to the pool. It’s easier, psychologically - time passes more quickly in open water. That said, I still think my 25K pool workout in March better prepared me mentally for Tampa and MIMS than anything else I did.

The chlorine box isn’t so bad! Especially if it looks like this:

Los Baños del Mar Pool. Santa Barbara, California.

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Posted in: training Tags: pool


On 2011-07-20 22:38:23, Sarah said:
I love Dave Barra's opinion of a swimming pool- they are really terrible. I can't believe you've done a 25k in one. The furthest I've gone is a 20k and I can't imagine tacking another 5k on to that. Five hours in a pool is more than enough for me, thanks. Though, you're right- they do serve a good purpose. I know I definitely need the precise feedback that swimming in a pool can give you- a good test set can really let you know where you are in training.

On 2011-07-21 12:53:55, Evan said:
Believe me, I was pretty much "done" after 20K... the last 5K was almost an out-of-body experience.

On 2011-07-27 15:35:59, Sully said:
Try doing it in a SCY indoor poorly lit pool. That's my excuse for stopping at 24K...