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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
Pool buoy: 2 x 200m pull FAST (thighs) 20 sec rest 100m kick – free kick / back kick 200m 1-arm backstroke / 1-arm freestyle
6 x 100m free @ 1.55
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:
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.
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.
Keep a high elbow position when swimming. That includes during the pull (under the water) and the recovery (out of the water).
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.
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.
Maintain a neutral (straight and low) head position. This is important. Your head is heavy. Keep it low and your neck and spine straight.
Keep fingers slightly open and hands relaxed. Tension will wear you out and you won’t last to the finish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is not a class or lesson, you set your own distance, pace and time in the water. I set up a 600-700m swim course in the no-boating zone and provide on-water support with a boardy or kayaker keeping an eye on you and the conditions around you.
The course will be a big square or triangle stretching from the shallows to the deep water around the yellow poles at Williamstown. You can swim the entire course any number of times or stick to the shallows.
When you get out there will be hot tea and watermelon. Please BYO snacks for a picnic. You can’t leave and drive away straight after getting out of the cool water. There are warm showers nearby.
Why would anyone want to swim in the cool water?
Because this is an amazing experience that will make you healthier, happier and smarter! Seriously. The cold water improves your circulation, your immune system, gets blood flowing through your brain and boosts your endorphin production and mood. This thing is addictive.
And it’s particularly good for you if you are at an age where you are saying things like “age doesn’t matter, it’s just a number” and “I’m young at heart.”
So this is the need-to-know information for our cold water swimming group:
1) Meet near carpark behind WSLSC by 8.45am 2) You can hire a wetsuit from me for $20 if you need one. 3) I also have booties, swim gloves and thermal caps. 4) Maximum swim time is 60 minutes at the moment because the water is 16 -17C and this time will be reduced to 45 minutes when the water is 12 -13 C. 5) For people not wearing a wetsuit, the maximum swim time is 45 minutes. 6) You can’t leave straight after swimming. You definitely can’t drive a car straight after swimming in cold water. 7) You can share my tea (BYO cup) and watermelon and/or bring some snacks for yourself or our picnic table. 8) Bring a warm towel (or two) or even a blanket, maybe a chair, but standing in the sun, or going for a run is the best way to get your body temp back towards normal. 9) I have thermal blankets if necessary, there are warm council showers if you feel like it. 10) You can tell your friends and family you have found a new healthy drug called cool water swimming, you’re getting addicted and you don’t need rehab….
UPDATE: September 2021: The water is getting slighter warmer every week in Melbourne and now is a great time to jump and have a go. The water is usually clearer and often calmer than summer months.
Here is the executive summary:
Cold water swimming is awesome. People start out hesitant and then love it. You will be in a good mood when you get out. Cold water swimming produces endorphins more effectively than just about any other activity, so you won’t regret doing it, safely.
Yes you can swim for a short time in water temperatures from 10 to 15 degrees without a wetsuit but you will be cold and you will get colder when you get out. If you are not acclimatised to the cold water, you will probably need a wetsuit for temperatures below 15 degrees until your body gets used to the cold water. That takes weeks and months.
Walk in to the water slowly. Put your hands down in the water as you walk in. When your hands start to feel ok with the temperature (might take 5 to 10 minutes of standing around chatting), you are ready to dive in, though you might like to start with some breaststroke or water polo – head up freestyle.
The first ten minutes are confronting. Your face, hands and feet will feel the cold the most. After that you will realise that you’re starting to get used to it and you will even be starting to enjoy the amazing feeling all over. Like your whole body, nerves and and senses are being overloaded, bombarded, activated.
Don’t stay in cold water (under about 15 degrees) for longer than 45 minutes until you are quite experienced. If you are too cold, you may not realise it so set a firm time limit for yourself and stick to it.
Don’t swim in cold water alone.
Always plan for your recovery after the swim. You will get colder when you get out. Have a thermos of hot tea handy and warm clothes. Get out of the wind and out of wet swimsuits.
Be prepared to move around in the sun or sit in a car with the heater on until you warm up again. Shivering is OK, it won’t last forever but you can’t drive until you warm up. So you need to schedule recovery time. For newbies to cold water swimming this might be up to 30 minutes.
Read below for more info about the cold water swimming including the risks and more about how to do it safely.
My personal cold water swimming journey:
Like most swimmers, I have come from a pool swimming background to open water swimming. I found the cold water a deterrent for a couple of years and would stop open water swimming in Autumn and come back to it in Spring.
I now swim in the ocean year round, often with no wetsuit in the middle of winter, down to temperatures of 9 – 10 degrees and love it, look forward to it and assist other swimmers to do it.
What I wear for cold water swimming:
I used to swim with a thick 5 mm wetsuit and thermal cap (see pic below near the end of this article). Now I wear two latex swim caps and ensure I pull them down over my ears to prevent the cold getting into my inner ears.
I’ve done away with the thick wetty and now wear a thin 2mm sleeveless wetty and that is more than enough for mid-winter swimming. So your body does change and adapt and you reap health benefits from doing it. You burn heaps of calories (but beware the urge to ‘carb-load’ afterwards).
UPDATE April 2021: Cold water swimming in Melbourne is starting again for winter 2021.
Is cold water swimming healthy? Is swimming in the cold winter ocean safe or advisable? What water temperature is considered cold in cold water swimming?
Firstly, yes, swimming in the sea during winter can be healthy and safe and completely energising and revitalising. There is no doubt that cold or cool water immersion can assist with blood circulation and science says this is just the start of the benefits. Your mood will improve and your brain functions will improve as a result of more blood flowing through the head.
But, and there is a big but, you need to know some of the basics before jumping in. And you probably won’t be jumping in anyway, more like a slow walk at best.
That’s because cold water swimming done wrong can be risky and dangerous to your long term health.
Is cold water dangerous?
Cold water swimming comes with risk. Here are the major ones:
Cold water shock – When you first get in the water, you will feel the shock of the cold, especially on your head, hands and feet. The terms “Ice cream headache” and “Brainfreeze” will have new meaning for you. Your breathing will be constrained and you need to focus on your exhale to calm down. Cold water shock can lead to panic attacks requiring assistance or rescue. Enter water slowly with hands in the water. Don’t submerge your head in the cold water until you feel ready.
Hypothermia – the big one. Hypothermia is when your body’s core temperature falls below 35C. This can lead to unconsciousness, organ damage, organ failure and cardiac arrest. You may not realise you have hypothermia or how low your temperature has fallen because your brain and body is not functioning efficiently. Never swim alone, never swim when you are shivering and never swim too long.
Swim slow down – Cold water swimming causes your body to restrict blood flow to the arms and legs. This slows down your movements but you may not realise it. Eventually you can no longer swim properly. Don’t stay in the water if you are at all struggling or slowing down.
Surfer’s Ear – Cold water can damage the inner ear. Pull your swim cap(s) down over your ears to prevent the water entering your ears or use ear plugs or even blue-tak in your ears.
After-chill – When you get out, the cold blood in your arms and legs begins to circulate again, lowering the core body temperature. You may feel colder ten minutes after your swim than during your swim. Warm tea – to warm up your core from the inside and warm clothes as soon as possible is the best solution. A steaming hot shower straight from the cold sea is less effective and not very beneficial.
How to swim in winter / How to swim in cold water.
First – yes do it you will enjoy it. No one ever regretted a (safe) swim. Be prepared though if you want the benefits, not the injuries.
There is nothing enjoyable, smart, healthy or tough about swimming for long periods alone, far from shore in very cold winter water with just speedos to protect your modesty.
You can get hypothermia from swimming for long periods in relatively warm water – into the mid 20s degrees Celsius, so winter water needs to be respected.
First a wetsuit, gloves, boots, cap (or two) is the best way to protect yourself from the cold while swimming in winter. But even all this neoprene will not protect you from Hypothermia and all the associated risks after about an hour.
Second – Swim in a group, never alone, don’t stray far from shore and shorten your swim for winter.
Third: A thermos of hot tea is your best friend.
Fourth: A run along the sand before or after your swim can help keep you warmer or warm back up.
How long should I stay in the cold water?
Lifesaving Victoria say if you are in cold water for more than one hour, you almost certainly have hypothermia and are at risk of black out. Limit cold water swimming to less than one hour in winter when water temperatures are low.
If you have low body fat, you will want to be getting out of cold water after about 45 minutes, depending on the temperature.
What temperature is “Cold Water Swimming?”
Cold Water swimming is a general term but there are guidelines and health and safety regulations around cold water swimming events. Swimming Australia, FINA, triathlon organisations all have rules for cold water swimming based on health advice. All too often these rules get developed after a tragedy or many, so let’s find out more:
Cold water swimming temperatures in centigrade/Celsius:
Mid 20s degrees: warm enough for everyone
22C: Warm in Victoria, but a bit nippy for northerners from NSW and Queensland!
20C: You might like a wetsuit for long swims.
18C: Time for a wetsuit. FINA and Swimming Australia say wetsuits (not swim suits) are mandatory in OWS events under 18 degrees.
16C: FINA and Swimming Australia rules say no event can be held in water under 16 degrees.
15.5C: Swimmers who want to qualify for an English Channel attempt must swim for two hours, without wetsuit in water that is 15.5C or less. This is really cold and you will need time to recover from swimming in water of this temperature. You can’t leave the water and expect to be able to drive a car, for example.
10C: This is cold. Limit swims to well under one hour and do not attempt without a wetsuit at very least.
8C: Do not enter the water for more than a very short period of time – max 30 minutes – for the most experienced swimmers.
5C: This is called Ice swimming. Please seek medical advice.
I no longer need or want the thermal cap and thick wetsuit. My body has got used to the cold water and I look forward to winter swimming, when the water is crisp and clear and invigorating.
Open water swimming is a rapidly growing sport and Williamstown Beach is the home of Victoria’s biggest open water swimming program.
Thousands of swimmers enjoy our beautiful beach, abundant sea life and and marine sanctuary each year. Williamstown Swimming and Lifesaving Club host the Victorian Open Water Championships each December and the WOW Challenge public participation swim festival.
Every Saturday morning and Wednesday evening after work (during daylight savings) there is a free swimming group and swim coaching classes.
A swim from Williamstown Beach, out across the deep blue water to Altona Beach … and back? That’s 7.6km of swimming in the sea.
Are you crazy??
That’s what I first thought when the idea was put to me. I’m the guy squatting at bottom left of the picture above.
In the pic above are some very good swimmers. And then there’s me.
From the left, Freya is in the pink cap is super fit and so is Adam next to her. Vince at the back accompanied us on a Rescue Board. Grant, the muscleman at front & centre is an English Channel swimmer. Behind Grant is Faris and Simon (yellow cap). These two are talented freestylers who never stop, just like Joanie on the right.
In this pic (below) is the approximate course we take to Altona from Williamstown SLSC.
Leaving from the beach, we turn right at the end of the rock groyne and swim over “the Crystals.” This area is alive with plants, animals and every colour, but watch out for spiny urchins and sharp, slippery rocks.
I thought I would stop at Altona Dog Beach and get a lift back with Mike, who kindly drove my towel and drink over. But everyone else was jumping back in to swim all the way back. I couldn’t be the only one stopping at halfway.
In the end I surprised myself and completed the 7.6km round trip. This was the first time I had ever completed a big swim out in the sea. My trip to Altona and back really opened my eyes up to a great experience.
I’ve been swimming in the sea every week since my trip to Altona, two years ago.