Summer is coming. No, really. It is. It might not feel like it now, but it’s just up around the bend, and with it comes open water swimming season. With that knowledge in hand, it’s time to turn Aesop’s fable of the “Ant and the Grasshopper” on its head and get busy preparing in winter for the coming summer season.

New Englandbased marathon swimmer and Level 3 Coach Jennifer Dutton says you can be the well-prepared ant by focusing on drills that support three aspects of your stroke now to make you a better open water swimmer when the ice clears.

Breathing: Timing Drills

Because conditions in open water can be unpredictable, you need to be ready for those moments when you can’t breathe as you’d prefer or like you would in a pool. To help you get ready for what that’s like, Dutton recommends “playing with breathing” in two ways:

  • Breathe early in your stroke. Turn your head to breathe before your opposite hand enters the water.
  • Breathe late in your stroke. Don’t turn your face to breathe until after your opposite arm is fully outstretched and you’re on that side.

“Don’t use the breathing motion to rotate—rotate and add the breathing motion in,” Dutton says, noting that your freestyle stroke should be hip-driven and body rotation should come from that hip drive, not from anything you’re doing with your head.

“In open water, you can’t predict conditions or timing of the breath, so you should be able to slightly change your rhythm to match swells, chop, or sighting needs,” she says. In addition, “changing your breathing patterns during practice is very valuable. Any time you can change your patterns, it’ll be helpful in open water.”

Balance: One-Arm Freestyle Drill

Finding the right body balance line is also important in open water, as swells and waves can throw you out of balance and make your stroke less efficient. You can prepare for this by doing “a drill that’s super annoying but also super helpful: one-arm freestyle,” Dutton says.

“Under normal circumstances, one-arm free is not particularly valuable, but using one arm and breathing away from that arm will work rotation, balance, and separating the breath from the roll,” the same skill you’re practicing in the breathing drill above.

When executing this one-arm freestyle drill, Dutton says you should “take care to get onto each hip every stroke. This will help even out your rotation. Successful one-sided breathers rotate equally on both sides. Most of us don’t, but the closer we can get to symmetry with the hip rotation, the better.”

Body Line: Almost Catch-Up Drill

Related to balance is the idea of body line. “The one-arm drill works the body line by making it logical to keep the ‘bottom arm’ still and in front of your shoulder during the inhale,” Dutton says. “But another simple way to work body line is to use an ‘almost catch-up’ stroke.”

Catch-up stroke drills tend to encourage cross-over of your arms in front of your head, which you don’t want. But an almost catch-up drill keeps your hands entering at shoulder-width and not crossing over while still encouraging the long glide that the drill helps develop.

When doing an almost catch-up drill, Dutton says, your emphasis should be on “keeping that front arm extended during the inhale. The catch should not happen until your face is just about back in the water after that inhale.” She also recommends breathing every third stroke for “maximum symmetry. If you ‘cannot’ breathe on a certain side, this drill will give you the time to get onto your hip before turning your face to breathe.”

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