Swimming in rough water
COACH,  EXTRA,  FEATURES,  May 2024,  Top Tips

How to navigate challenging conditions with confidence

Swimming in rough water needn’t be something to fear, says Paul Newsome

As the sun warms up and the days lengthen, swimmers in the northern hemisphere will be eagerly shedding the confines of the pool for the vast expanse of open water. Yet, as exhilarating as it may be to trade chlorinated lanes for the freedom of the open sea or expansive lakes, it’s crucial to remember one fundamental truth: open water conditions are a whole different ball game. So much so, that here at Swim Smooth, we’ve spent the last 20 years educating open water swimmers and triathletes on the minutiae of these differences and how learning these tips and tricks can have a massive impact on not just how well you perform, but indeed, if you even make it across something like the English Channel.

Picture this: after months of dedicated pool training, you find yourself standing at the edge of a shimmering lake or staring out at the vast expanse of the ocean, ready to embark on a longer swim. But as you set off, you encounter choppy waters, unpredictable currents, and blustery winds – all elements absent from the controlled environment of the pool.

I’ve been there – crossing the English Channel in September 2011 on a particularly gruelling day comes to mind – officially noted by the Channel Swimming Association as the Worst Day of 2011 to have a successful completion. It wasn’t just about physical endurance though; it was about mental fortitude and adaptability in the face of adversity. On that day, when the winds howled and the waves surged, I relied heavily on techniques I had honed through countless hours of training.

One strategy that proved invaluable was breathing primarily to my less accustomed side, which for me is my left. The Force 4 gale was pounding me from my right, but the Louise Jane (piloted expertly by Andy King) tried to shelter me by blocking the wind and swell. The problem was I had to then keep eye contact and breathe more to my right. Given that this is my favourite side, you wouldn’t think that was a problem, but after three hours my left shoulder started to ache and I began doubting I’d make it across. Instead, I made the contentious decision to swim on the other side of the boat which forced me to breathe more to my left. This made the going very tough, but it immediately relieved the pain in my left shoulder and I ultimately then made it across in 12h14m.

So, how can you thrive in rough conditions like this while others are left floundering? Here are some tried-and-tested tips:

  1. Stay Calm and Controlled: When faced with turbulent waters, it’s easy to panic. But remember, panicking only expends valuable energy and compromises your technique. Stay calm, focus on your breathing, and maintain a controlled stroke – “Bubble-Bubble-Breathe!”
  2. Adapt Your Technique: In the pool, you may be used to perfecting your stroke in smooth, still waters. However, in open water, you’ll encounter a variety of conditions. Be prepared to adapt your technique – whether it’s adjusting your sighting to navigate through choppy waves, modifying your arm recovery by opening out the angle at your elbow and swimming with a straighter arm recovery, or increasing your cadence (stroke rate) by 5-8spm to give you more rhythm and momentum. It all helps.
  3. Practise Sighting: Sighting – the act of lifting your head to orient yourself – is essential for navigating in open water. Practise sighting regularly during your training sessions to build confidence and efficiency. Remember to keep your sighting brief and incorporate it seamlessly into your stroke. Think: sight-roll-breathe.
  4. Focus on Body Position: Maintaining a good, horizontal body position is crucial for conserving energy and staying high in the water in rough conditions, rather than being swamped.
  5. Equip Yourself: Invest in quality swim gear designed for open water conditions, such as a well-fitted wetsuit, goggles with good panoramic vision, and a brightly coloured swim cap for visibility. Additionally, consider using swim aids like tow floats for added reassurance, especially when venturing into unfamiliar waters. I used to scoff at these, thinking the drag would be unbearable, but it’s little to nothing and just gives you that extra degree of comfort.
  6. Know Your Limits: While pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is essential for growth, it’s equally important to know your limits. Be honest with yourself about your swimming ability and the conditions you’re facing. There’s no shame in calling it a day if conditions become unsafe or overwhelming. The key tip here is to always swim with a buddy and stay close together – you could even consider a tether like many people use in swimrun events.

As summer beckons and the allure of open water beckons, remember to respect the elements and embrace the challenge. Open water swimming offers a unique blend of exhilaration and serenity, but it demands respect and preparation. By honing your skills, staying adaptable, and approaching each swim with mindfulness, you’ll not only thrive in challenging conditions but emerge a stronger and more confident swimmer. So, dive in, embrace the unknown, and let the waters of open water swimming carry you to new horizons – they certainly have for me and I wouldn’t change that for anything!

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.