[Editorial Note: The following is excerpted from Chapter 21 of Terry Laughlin’s 2002 book, Triathlon Swimming Made Easy: The Total Immersion Way for Anyone to Master Triathlon or Open Water Swimming]
REALLY OPEN WATER
Ocean swimming is a whole different story. The best way to become comfortable and adept is to spend some time body surfing. It provides a perfect opportunity for mastering sea skills while having fun. Body surfing teaches you to be completely at ease in the ocean, and particularly, to understand waves. Swimming through breakers takes strength, wit, and timing. You can’t just mash through them; they’ll throw you back, gasping and muddled. Body surfing is ideal practice because after each ride in, you can’t wait to catch another, so you learn to zip through the shore break quickly, with energy intact to grab your next ride.
Here’s how to do it. Start in ankle-deep water and high-step through the shallows, leaping over low rollers. Ocean bottom is notoriously unpredictable (a hole here, a sandbar there), so watch your step. But you probably won’t run far anyway, unless the tide is way out; it’s easier to porpoise once the water covers your knees. Dive forward, grab the sand, and pull your feet under you. Plant your feet, then dive up, and over to arc back toward the bottom again. Each time you pop up, immediately look for the next wave. When depth makes this awkward or laborious, start swimming. But you have to check the wave line every two or three strokes.
If you see a shoulder forming that looks as if it could break, you’re probably over a sandbar. Try to get your feet down and prepare to dive under the wave. The ideal time, if you’re fortunate enough, is to dive through the base of the wave just before it breaks. That will actually shoot you out the back with added momentum. If you can’t manage that, just duck under before it reaches you.
Or, you may be facing 30 yards or more of rollers that broke farther out and are coming at you in lines, usually in water too deep to porpoise. Sometimes you may be able to take only a few strokes before another wave is on top of you, forcing you to dive again. Leave one arm in front as you breathe, swing the other arm over, and drive it in strongly as you pike under. Breaststroke once quickly and resurface, looking immediately for the next wave. Get in as many strokes as you can to power through the white water behind them, ready to dive under again. It can be difficult to get a rhythm going; you really need to be comfortable with being buffeted and thrown off your stride every few strokes, then resuming your rhythm quickly. As I said, there is absolutely no substitute for practicing this a lot.
(See video below for good demos of “porpoising” / “dolphin dives” and high-stepping)
Once you’re past the breaker line, you’ll be swimming in chop or swells of some height. Practice comes in handy here too, because it helps you learn to sense when you’re riding up on a crest or sinking in a trough. There’s no point in sighting while in a trough. With experience, you learn to time your looks for when you feel yourself rising on a swell. In July of 2000, I swam a mile race in storm surf where the swells ranged upward of five feet, which limited the size of the field and scattered it considerably. Most of the time I swam blindly in what I hoped was the right direction, pausing frequently to take 2-4 breast strokes, hoping to catch a glimpse of another swim cap. When I saw one, I’d swim that way, anxious for company out in the wet-and-wildness. In any sort of chop, which is common in the ocean, it helps enormously to have had considerable experience getting your bearings. You need to learn to time the waves, and to perhaps delay a breath (or breathe to the other side) because you can sense a wave about to slap you in the face. Another option worth practicing is to take a deep breath to your side, then look up and spot without swallowing water as a wave splashes over you.
I know it can sound scary but, in time, you essentially learn to roll with the punches, to trust your swimming ability and the safety measures of the race organizers, and to relax and find a rhythm in harmony with the swells around you. Three adjustments can be particularly helpful in a choppy sea: First, swing your arms a bit higher on recovery. Second, roll farther to breathe– just as far as you need to find air. Finally, be intently focused on piercing the waves, rather than bullying your way through them.
At some point, you’ll need to return to shore. If there’s a shore break of any size, it will definitely occur to you that you might get crushed by a wave sneaking up from behind. A swimmer who knows how to ride waves and how to “read” the ebb and flow of a breaker line can get to shore much faster and more smoothly. Once you’ve cleared the final buoy and are headed toward shore, don’t worry too much about finishing your swim right in front of the finish line. Instead of angling toward the finish line while swimming, swim straight in and and then run along the shore to the swim finish. You’ll get there much faster by running than by swimming diagonally and you’ll handle the shore break much better going straight in.
Once you are in the breaker zone again, you’ll feel this: A swell will catch up with you and you’ll feel your body accelerating. Swim faster, using the boost for as long as you can. Once the wave passes you, you’ll feel yourself being pulled back in the ebb. Work hard enough to counter this, then resume your normal rhythm again. Finally, you’ll be close enough to shore that you can sense waves beginning to break. Now is a good time to turn on your back for a few strokes to see if there’s one you can catch. When you feel yourself being sucked into a breaking wave, rotate to face down and swim three to four strokes at top speed, then put one or both arms forward, put your head down, and lean on your chest as you keep kicking.
Keep kicking and leaning on your leading arm for as long as you feel yourself in the wave. When it passes, if you can feel the bottom as you stroke, start porpoising. If the tide is out and there’s a long shallow zone between the break and the beach, throw yourself ahead of following waves as they catch up to you. It’s easier to catch a mini ride than to run and leap through knee-deep shore break.
(See video for a good demo of body surfing– you’ll need to kick vigorously, as noted, since you won’t have fins.)
How to practice this? Simple and fun. More body surfing. Most of the time you won’t be at the shoreline at the end of your ride, so you can practice porpoising, mini rides, and high-stepping out of the water. Another good form of practice at the beach is to set up a mini-course, repeatedly swimming out 50 yards or so, and then returning, always starting and finishing on shore. In the 1970’s, I worked as a lifeguard at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island. At Field 6, where I was stationed, we would set up a mini course by anchoring a milk or bleach jug about 75 yards from the main stand. On down time, we would often practice several dashes into the surf, stroking out to the buoy and then back to shore, finishing each by running to the stand. Whenever the surf was up, we’d spend hours body surfing. It was exhilarating fun– as well as invaluable practice of our rescue skills. I’ve loved racing in the ocean ever since.
If you’re not fortunate, as I am, to have a group to practice with, don’t swim unprotected. Ask someone to swim with you or to paddle or row along. If your swimming partner is less experienced, keep an eye on him or her while you swim. If you swim where there’s motorboat or jet-ski traffic, you must have an escort boat, and you should always swim with a brightly colored cap. Otherwise, swim on a guarded beach. One of my practice sites, Lake Awosting, offers an enclosed-and-guarded area about 50 meters wide. If you swim in an unfamiliar spot, learn all you can about conditions: currents and riptides, submerged rocks, or pilings.
See last week’s blog post for open water tips on DRAFTING and PACING!
To read the full chapter on Open Water Practice and Racing, check out Chapter 21 of Triathlon Swimming Made Easy… or our “Outside the Box: A Program for Success in the Open Water” video! See clip below: