How to swim in rough water

This post is five tips for swimming in rough water

by Coach of Open Water Swimmers Jason Bryce

You can swim in the pool but when you get to the sea, woah! It’s a different story. You look out from the beach and there are waves, it’s choppy, you can see the wind is pushing the water into currents and you wonder how you’re going to be able to deal with that. If you don’t think these things, then you’re in danger of being just way too overconfident and ignoring the reality of swimming in the sea.

It’s harder, challenging,  more of a workout, there’s risk – and it’s heaps more fun when you get confident.

First of all everything you learn about good freestyle and practice at the pool is tested in the open water but everything you learn about freestyle has to be put into practice in the sea.

When the water is moving around and the waves are crashing into your face, yes things are going to be messy but the more you can keep your technique tight, the better, faster and easier things will be.

Here are five things to work on to make open water swimming in the rough water a bit more manageable:

9am OWS Skills group
  1. Some stretching before you dive in is advisable because you may have to deal with forces that push and pull you around in ways that you don’t normally deal with. You’re going to be arching your back more than usual to see where you’re going and you may have to lift your head higher to breathe in, so stretch your back and move your neck around a bit. Your elbows need to higher in the rough water to clear the waves, so stretch those arms behind your back or hold your elbow behind your head.
  2. You need a higher stroke rate than normal. And you need to kick more than you might otherwise in smooth calm conditions. An you have to make sure that you never, ever stop kicking. You have to keep moving forward and in charge of your own direction. Keep your speed up and don’t settle for bobbing around in the water like a cork because that means a loss of control and could make you a bit seasick as well. So yes, when you start an open water swim in rough conditions you know you are going to be getting more of a workout and you’ll be using more energy.
  3. Focus on your technique and trying to do everything (as much as possible) correctly. Sometimes swimmers say things like: “You just have to crash and bash your way through.” But that is understating what they themselves are doing. They are staying strong in their core and maintaining a stable platform for their levers to operate effectively. Yes sometimes you will crash through a wave and sometimes the wave will roll over you completely but whatever happens you have to remain long, straight and ready to start your next stroke and keep kicking. Keep your legs close together while kicking, don’t do big kicks, keep them relatively small and fast. Hold your body as still as possible. The idea is to cut through the water, the chop and the waves, not get thrown around by them. So that means a you need a nice tight straight body position, not a loose core that’s not supporting your arm movements and kick.
  4. Each arm stroke needs to enter the water with intent. Your arm recovery (when it is in the air moving back to the front) has to be quick, real quick. Spear your fingers in first, followed by your arm and grab the water nice and high, way out in front of you. A faster stroke rate doesn’t mean missing out on a powerful catch at the start of every stroke. This is the most important part of the freestyle. You need to be powerful at the front of every freestyle arm stroke, Push forward with hand after entering the water then use plenty of effort to grab the water with your wrist, hold your elbow high and pull through with real muscle strength from biceps, back, shoulders and triceps.
  5. Breathe in more often, even every arm stroke. You don’t want to be worried about your breathing and you don’t want to left with no air so breathe more often. You can make this part of a really strong freestyle if you focus on pulling hard and straight with the arm that strokes while your head is down. As long as you keep things even, balanced and straight,  this galloping style of freestyle can work for you in the sea.

How to train for open water swimming events

How do you train for an open water swimming event or the swim leg of a triathlon?

There is a lot of similarities in training for open water swimming and training for distance freestyle like 800m or 1500m events but, of course, we are adding on the challenges of the ocean or a lake. 

So first, you need to take it seriously (and still have fun taking it seriously).

That means you go for a swim, in the pool or open water, no less than three times per week. And you should be working up to swimming at least 2km each time you swim. And that’s 2km of quality swimming, pushing yourself and raising your heartbeat. If your heart rate is not elevated, you are not training, you’re just moving your body (which is good) but you’re not getting much stronger, fitter and ready for a big event.

Second: Training for distance doesn’t mean just going for a long swim. Do intervals of fast swimming as well as a long weekly swim. A good schedule might be two hard training sessions plus one long swim per week (minimum). And of course this is a minimum, the more swimming you do the better.

Here is a sample pool training program for distance freestyle and open water swimming:


Warm Up – 20 secs rest between reps

400m slow mixed
3 x 100m fly / back / 50 free
50m breast
3 x 100m fly / breast / 50 free
50m back

Skills

Pool buoy: 2 x 200m pull FAST (thighs) 20 sec rest
100m kick – free kick / back kick  
200m 1-arm backstroke / 1-arm freestyle  

Main Set

6 x 100m free @ 1.55
             

Cool Down

8 x 25m @ 45 sec
200m SLOW
 

What are the differences between open water freestyle and pool freestyle?

Now you’re doing all that, you can start thinking about what open water freestyle is about. It’s different to sprint freestyle for the pool. You could be doing thousands of strokes in a distance event so your technique is much more important.

A small inefficiency will be repeated thousands of times, so great distance swimmers are often the swimmers that get everything right. Here are the main elements to a good distance freestyle technique for the open water:

  1. Use a slightly higher arm recovery when swimming long distance and in the open water. Stretch out at the front and catch the water. Get your forearm vertical as soon as possible.
  2. Maintain a long, straight body position and use long strokes. In distance freestyle, minimise the number of strokes, longer the better. Measure your SWOLF (Swimming Golf) score which is your time in seconds plus your strokes over a set distance – lower the SWOLF score the better.
  3. Keep a high elbow position when swimming. That includes during the pull (under the water) and the recovery (out of the water).
  4. Use a two-beat kick for long-distance swimming. Fast kicking is not needed and tires you out. Two beat kick means two kicks per stroke cycle. Don’t worry too much about counting kicks, just slow it down and don’t too many.
  5. Learn correct breathing technique. Keep head low, don’t turn from neck, turn from abs. Hold yourself up with your front hand. You need to breathe more in the open water and distance freestyle events so get it right. Keep your head low even when inhaling.
  6. Maintain a neutral (straight and low) head position. This is important. Your head is heavy. Keep it low and your neck and spine straight.
  7. Keep fingers slightly open and hands relaxed. Tension will wear you out and you won’t last to the finish.
  8. Practice sighting – Lift your head slightly and look forward while you are still exhaling and before you turn to breathe in. This is very important – Look BEFORE you breathe in, while you are still exhaling bubbles from your nose (mainly). Don’t lift your head to look around and breathe in at the same time.
  9. Practice swimming straight – When your arm enters the water it needs to stretch and point to where you are going, then come back in a straight line until your thumb flicks your thigh or hip upon exiting the water. Do not do an S-shaped stroke under the water – this will send you off in the wrong direction.
  10. Get acclimatised to the water you will be swimming in. Ocean water is often colder than the pool so get used to the colder water temperatures, even if that means just taking a cold shower in the morning.
  11. Swim with a buddy or in a group and practice drafting behind or next to another swimmer. If you can position yourself behind the feet of a swimmer or next to their hips, you are inside their bow wave and will benefit from their wake of moving water that trails behind them.

When swimming long distances, every stroke needs to keep your momentum up and not be a wasted effort. Here is a great video of Mack Horton recording one of the fastest 1500m ever swum. Every stroke is long, powerful and deliberate. He is thinking his way through the race. From the surface, he looks slow, but under the water you can see how his technique is catching a lot of water and pulling it a long way. He doesn’t need to raise his head when breathing, he knows there is a pocket of air behind his bow wave.

Breathing for open water swimming:

Many distance swimmers breathe every stroke. They get into a rhythm and use their front arm to hold them up as they inhale. In the open water you need to inhale more often than you might in the pool. 

HOWEVER: When training you still need to use bilateral breathing and spread out your breathing-in to one every three or four strokes, at least some of the time. This helps you develop a balanced stroke and manage your breathing so you have an easy, long exhale. 

Come for a Pier to Pub training sesh or record a Virtual Pier to Pub time with us at Williamstown on 3rd January. Book here by selecting the 10am 3rd Jan Swim Around the Poles group.

Check out the Open Water Swim Calendar for Victoria.