Training for the Open Water National Championships

A 25K open water swim at the elite level takes over five hours.

From May 19 to 21, 2007, I will be competing in the National Open Water Championships in Ft. Myers Beach, Fla. In Saturday's 10K race, I hope to swim under two hours and improve on an 11th place finish last year. After a day off, I'll compete in the 25K on Monday, a race I won in 2005 and placed fourth last year with a time of 5 hours, 19 minutes.

Open Water Nationals will be my early season taper event since it is a qualifier for the U.S. Olympic trials for the 10K and a World Championship trial for the 25K. Below is a sample of my training log leading up to this race. In addition to competing in several open-water swims of 10K or longer, the schedule also reflects my training for triathlons ranging from sprint to half-Ironman distance, as well as working a full-time job.

Build-up/base-training period: January through March

  • Typical swim volume: 50K-60K per week
  • Typical bike volume: 100 miles per week
  • Typical run volume: 20 miles per week
  • Weight training and other dryland conditioning: 1 hour per week
  • Average training time: 15 to 20 hours per week

During this time, I mixed dryland conditioning into some swim sets. For example, with a 12-pound weight belt around my waist I'd do a set of 20x25 fly on 45 seconds each, including 10 push-ups between each 25. This was the time to focus on general endurance as I built toward heavy training periods.

Specialization period: April to May 6

  • Typical swim volume: 80K or more per week
  • Typical bike volume: 75 miles per week
  • Typical run volume: 15 miles per week
  • Average training time: 20 to 25 hours per week

I believe the specialization period is the key to determining success versus failure. With a focus on volume and intensity, I decreased the time spent on dryland conditioning, but increased my focus on abdominal and core training. A typical steady-state swim set -- crucial for long-distance races -- was to do a 25K race pace for 30 to 60 minutes.

In a typical week, I would do a minimum of five sessions of 10K or longer -- sometimes up to 18K per workout. At the end of these long sessions, I'd usually do a sprint set that focused on speed and a strong finish.

Taper period: May 7 to May 18

  • Typical swim volume: 50K (two weeks before competition), 35K (final week)
  • Typical bike volume: 40 miles per week
  • Typical run volume:10 miles per week
  • Average training time: 10 to 15 hours per week

During the taper period, I decreased my total bike, run and dryland volume, but maintained their frequency and continued to focus on core training. In the pool, I decreased the volume and intensity of my workouts and focused on changing speeds and pacing.

For example, I might do a 2,000-meter swim while varying the speed per 100 (the first 100 on 1:25, second on 1:15, third on 1:20, fourth on 1:10, etc.). For pacing, I might do 12x100 on 1:20, holding a 25K race pace. My typical sessions range from 9K down to 4K directly before competition.

Due to my background in endurance events, I believe in a shorter rest period than many swim coaches. I've found 10 to 14 days is enough time to taper for races of 10K or longer.

It is essential to get plenty of sleep while decreasing volume, but not so much that you lose the benefit of your specialization period. During the final week of taper, I try to get a minimum of 10 hours of sleep per night. Without adequate rest, the benefits of the taper will not be seen.

Finding open water

Unfortunately, due to my location in the northeast, I haven't trained in open water as often as I would have preferred. Because the water temperature is anticipated to be 80 to 82 degrees, swimming in 50-degree water would be counter-productive.

I was able to get in one long swim in a river, which I believe is beneficial. Any experienced open-water swimmer will tell you that you can't fully simulate open water in a short pool. During the summer months, I plan to do the majority of my swimming in open water.

With my training plan, I believe I've done the most I could with what I had and have set myself up for strong swims at nationals.

Read about John's Nationals experience here.

John Kenny is a five-time U.S. National Champion in open-water swims ranging from 10K to 25K. He currently trains and competes in Atlantic City, N.J.


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