The Wild Open Water Environment: Waves and Wind

One of the first things that pool swimmers discover when transitioning to open water swimming is a difference in the water surface – it is rarely as smooth as a pool. Whether a surface ripple, a light chop, variable swells, a tide, a visible current, or true waves with whitecaps, these new variables will challenge the discipline of your pool stroke. The question arises: can you really continue to swim as if you are in a pool?

When encountering waves, you may feel you are fighting the water, prompting the consideration of trying to work with the waves. Try to swim through (or underneath) some if they are large and coming head on, and float over some others to take advantage of being at the top of a wave. And if there are waves coming from the side, you may need to become a one-sided breather, and you may need to correct your swim path regularly because you are being pushed sideways. Paradoxically, if you can relax your body while swimming in wavy conditions, you can feel what the water is doing better, which improves your navigational abilities and can even make it fun! Essentially, then, windy, wavy conditions demand adjustments – to your mental preparedness, to your willingness to adapt to changing conditions, to your stroke, to your breathing and stroke cadence, and to your sighting techniques.

First, as always, establish an easy, and complete (with complete emptying) breathing cycle that does not accumulate carbon dioxide. Staying relaxed remains more essential than ever. An open water swim buoy can help with this. If the conditions elicit fear or overwhelm your abilities, you probably shouldn’t be out there, unless you are practicing in shallow water with a group to develop your skills. If your swim stroke cadence and breathing cycle can stay easily adaptable and changeable with every wave, you can actually enjoy swimming in rough water, like surfers that have learned to adapt to every wave. Work to feel the rocking peak-and-trough pattern of the waves and adjust to it. When you are in a trough, with a new wave possibly about to swamp you, you might say to yourself, “this is not a good time to breathe”, and just glide for an extra second or two while continuing to expire before attaining the next high point, where the breathing and the sighting becomes easy. You are simply learning a new dance.

Swimming a straight line is a major challenge in open water–there are no dark lane lines on the lake bottom to guide you, and ripples in the sand may not be reliable. To swim straight, you have to look forward with your eyes out of the water. “Sighting” is simply the process of popping your head up to look forward to a landmark that you should have at least thought about before you started swimming. It can be useful to look for landmarks that are off your intended course, so that when you see them, you know to change course. Sighting is most easily done by extending the neck and head upward or by pushing down slightly with your reaching hand to allow your head to pop up just enough to see (think alligator), just before you turn to breathe. A quick glance forward once your eyes clear the surface, before turning the head to inhale. How often you sight is dictated how straight you normally swim, or by how much you may be being pushed off course by the wind, waves, or current. Sight only as much as necessary–lifting your head too high can be hard on your neck, cause the wetsuit to chafe your neck, and can cause your legs to drop, compromising the efficiency of your body position.

This sighting technique will not be very useful if you are in a trough between waves when you look for a landmark, as instead, you will just see a wall of water. Herein lies the need to feel the rocking nature of the waves, so that you can sight when at or near the crest of a wave. The bigger the waves, the more helpful it is to sight for a higher landmark, like a mountain, as opposed to a buoy, which you may not be able to see.

In less familiar circumstances such as wind and waves, staying calm and in control of your breathing, your stroke, and your ability to sight to stay on course is more important than ever. Try using a safety swim buoy so you are seen by other boaters, and stay flexible and willing to adjust to the water waves and movements. Work with the water conditions, not against them. Repeated exposure and practice in all water conditions increases comfort when challenged with common open water variables, especially wind and waves. Always bring an open water swim buoy!

Photo Credit: Elmar Eye

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