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Some people swim well in the open water and somehow swim fast, adapting their stroke to any conditions. For a rare few, this is natural, but, for the majority the skill is learned. That’s why it is vital to add open water sessions to your training program if you intend to improve, or to simply be more comfortable when racing. There are also some drills and elements you can add to your pool sessions that will help you when you hit the open water (I will cover these in Part 2), but really the best way to prepare is to get out there.


Let’s start with some tips on how to swim in the open water more efficiently:

You can improve your open water skills through pure race practice, but the gains will be greater if you make open water sessions a regular occurrence. A weekly swim (when it is warm enough for those in the south) is ideal, and to vary the conditions is even better.

Every race you go in will be different because of wind, tides or other swimmers. It is best to be prepared for whatever conditions are thrown at you on race day. For that reason I suggest you set your open water session and stick to it, even if the conditions are less than desirable – just shorten or alter your session plan, but, still get in the water.


Breathing in chop

Practice swimming in choppy water. This includes against the chop, with the chop and even sideways to it, as you will need to adjust your breathing pattern and stroke to adapt to the conditions. For example, if the chop is coming from the left, then it is best for you to breathe to the right to avoid a mouthful of water. However, when swimming parallel to the shore there is the chance of a wave or chop washing you off-course, in which case it is beneficial to breathe to the left occasionally in order to get a view in that direction.


Stroke length

You will also need to adjust your stroke to suit the conditions. When the water is flat you should try and keep your stroke long and efficient, as you do in the pool. When you are swimming into the chop or in rough conditions your stroke technique is mostly dependent on your standard and how hard you are swimming. Many swimmers tend to automatically shorten their stroke when they get in the open water or choppy conditions. This is generally a mistake. By shorten I mean that you are not extending your arm at the end of your underwater stroke, and, are exiting the water closer to the hip rather than further down the thigh. It also means that you are not extending your arm at the start of the stroke to get maximum length and pull. If you are experienced, or if you are swimming really hard, you may have to shorten your stroke slightly to be more in time with the water movement, be careful not to shorten it too much.


Timing the waves

When swimming in the same direction as the chop – generally this is back to shore – it is very important to lengthen out your stroke. If the chop is big enough to feel like little waves are pushing you along, then you should vary your rating. Try picking up your stroke rate and kick when you feel your body being lifted up and forward. This will provide extra propulsion and you’ll be pushed further by the wave. When you are at the lowest part of the small wave, at the point where you feel as though you have dropped and are no longer moving, there is no point stroking fast. Save your energy to pick it back up when you feel your body being lifted again. This is a skill that requires practice and uses a lot of energy but if done properly can make a huge difference in speed. It’s all about the timing of when you lift and drop your stroke rating.


Arm action in the chop

In choppy water your arm action will probably have to change too so that your elbows and hands in the recovery (out of the water) movement are higher in order to clear the lumps in the water.


Sighting in the chop

When swimming into the chop you may need to lift your head up more often to spot the buoys, as the churning water may negatively affect your direction more than in flat conditions. As a general rule it is best to lift your head at the top of a wave. This is when you will have the best chance of spotting the buoy. When lifting your head be careful not to drop your hips and lose momentum. You should learn to quickly lift your head up without bending your back in the process, which pushes your hips and legs down. This means that when you put your head back in the water, you’ll have lost a lot of speed and have to use a lot of energy to get moving again. Therefore, a quick head lift just from the neck to sight the buoy or land mark is preferable.


Wetsuit practice

I also recommend practicing in your wetsuit, but not so much that you become dependent on it. You do tend to shorten your stroke in a wetsuit, particularly ones with arms and this is a bad habit to get into. In addition, you can get too used to the buoyancy and this can often negatively affect your body position when it comes time to train in the pool or race without the wetsuit. It creates a perpetuating cycle of bad habits. Wetsuits can feel quite restrictive though and it is wise to get used to that feeling.


Unfortunately there is no way of making swimming into the chop easier or more pleasant – practice is the only way to help you deal with it and learn to naturally adjust your stroke.


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Session ideas for the open water

Make sure you practice at race speed as well as doing plenty of starts and finishes. Here are some suggestions of sessions to do in the open water:

– Start near the waters edge, run in, wade and porpoise as far as you can

– Swim out 100 strokes

– Stop and rest

– Swim in, porpoise, wade and run up the sand for at least 20 meters.


For more of a challenge, and endurance based training, increase the amount of running and/or swimming distance. You can take out the running component if you like but the dolphining practice is recommended so that you get used to the transition phase. Here’s another great session:

– 100 metre run along the beach

– wade and porpoise in

– swim out 100 metres, turn, swim in and run up the beach again.


Repeat that a few times for great fitness and body conditioning.  You can do the same thing starting in the water.


Other suggestions:

You can also do mini sets in the open water counting strokes for distance or setting a countdown timer. Rather than just swimming straight, try and be creative to maintain interest.


Take a look at our From the pool to the open water Part 2 – swimming drills to help with the transition to open water swimming


About The Author

Naantali Marshall

Swim Expert

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