Pool vs. Open Water Swimming, A Different Intensity

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

From learning how to swim as a 4-year-old in Santa Monica Beach to growing up in Southern California playing water polo, doing open water swims, run-swim biathlons and pool races, I was never far away from water.

In 1982, I did the last pool swimming race of my life and turned completely to the open water.

Or so I thought.

After thousands of water polo games, pool races doing all four strokes, biathlons, lifeguard competitions, coastal ocean swims and lake swim, freestyle remained constant, but butterfly was replaced by drafting, backstroke by lanolin, and breaststroke by feeding stops. Split times, streamlined push-offs, starting blocks were forgotten. The chapter on relay starts, qualification times and hypoxic training was closed.

How John Kinsella, Brian Goodell and Tim Shaw swam and their intervals in training became less important than reading about the feats of Lynne Cox, Penny Dean and Claudio Plit.

Altitude training gave way to acclimatization. Finishing into the wall gave way to ins and outs. Swedish googles and Swedish lids gave way to polarized goggles and raccoon eyes.

Pacing in the pool, sometimes involving negative splitting, was something completely different than pacing in the open water which involves positioning.

But the intensity of competition continued. Lung-busting discomfort, lactic acid build-up, and heart-pounding intensity were the same in open water races as they were in pool competitions.

On the other hand, the intensity was fundamentally different.

The intensity of the pool is quick while intensity is more sustained in the open water. The discomfort of the pool is acute whereas it is more chronic in the open water. Mistakes are unforgiving in the pool where tenths of seconds made big differences; whereas navigational errors based on unexpected conditions are forgivable in the open water.

The pool offers a world of preciseness and uniformity while the open water is dynamic and unpredictable. The pool requires repetition and efficiency while the open water requires flexibility and adaptability. The pool has bleachers on a deck to sit on while the open water offers sand on a shore.

But 30 years after my last pool race, I dove in again to race butterfly. I was not fighting currents or hypothermia; I was battling the clock and lactate. Finishing was not the issue; but finishing fast was. Racing the next guy was not a matter of drafting off his hips or catching a wave at the end; it was a matter of blasting off the walls and maintaining my stroke.

Racing in the pool – like swimming in the ocean – was fun. It was a blast. It reminded me of how two-time Olympian Keri-Anne Payne answered when asked if she were a pool swimmer or open water swimmer, “I am a swimmer.”

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