Swim Training: The Role of Rough Water


One of the things that I have been thinking about as of late was whether or not there is value in ocean swim training where there are rough conditions.  This boils down to whether or not it is better to swim in the morning calm or the rough evening waters.  The answer is somewhere in the middle and can be defined as progress.

During my journey from couch potato to triathlete, learning to swim was one of the toughest things I have ever done.  In fact, this journey still continues today as I take on learning the freestyle crawl stroke, transitioning from side stroke.  What I learned is that swimming requires mastering three components; technique, strength, psychology. Once all of these are mastered, the sky is the limit for the swimmer.

Let’s briefly review each of these components.  Technique refers to how you swim, timing of your breathe, and how effective your stroke is.   Technique is learned and comes with practice and coaching.  Strength refers to how strong your muscles are.  Swimming requires a lot of upper body strength, especially when swimming long distances, so a good strength training program should accompany any swimmer’s workouts.  Strength is enhanced through practice and training. Psychology refers to the swimmer’s ability to overcome instinct to resist being in the water.  A swimmer can panic in reaction to certain conditions.  Psychology can only be developed in the mind of the swimmer.

Now, let us take a look at each of these in the scope of training in the pool, training in calm ocean, and training in a rough ocean:

Water Type: Pool
Technique: Controlled environment; great for beginners
Strength:   Minimal required; develops strength through progression
Psychology: beginner level, begin skill development to resist the fear of drowning

Water Type: Calm Ocean

Technique: Less controlled, must be further developed here for ocean swims  
Strength
: Minimal required, develops quicker as training progresses
Psychology: Next great milestone.  Overcome fear of the ocean, drowning, sharks, etc.

Water Type: Rough Ocean
Technique: Best to have a developed technique; how to control the body in rough conditions.
Strength: Above average ability required for swimming against strong currents; wears you out quicker
Psychology: How to deal with swell, choppy waves, and strong currents. It is the key to overcoming panic and loss of control.

The table above represents a rough sequence in the training of the swimmer.  Most start out in the pool, becoming more comfortable with moving through the water and learning breathing techniques. They then progress to the open ocean, most likely during calm situations.  At this point the swimmer knows a stroke, has developed the strength to swim a fair distance, but likely still lacks the psychological skills to overcome open water swimming.  The is the fear of the waves, the cold water, and the lack of safety that one is afforded in a pool.   Finally, one learns to swim in the rough ocean. By rough I refer to one or a combination of a high swell, choppy waves, a strong current and/or frigid temperatures.  In these conditions, the body panics as waves hit you in the face, disrupting your breathing; heavy currents work against you and force you off your track, and the frigid temperatures slow the brain’s ability to think.

Back to my original question, is there value in training in rough ocean conditions.  The answer is  resounding “Yes!”.  Rough ocean swimming, in my opinion, is a progression of the swimmer’s ability.  Training for the worst and hoping for the best on race is an excellent theory in training.  If you have only swam in calm waters, but find a rough, evil ocean staring you in the face on race day, you are already at a disadvantage. This is why training for the worst is part of the battle of winning the race.

I can speak to this from a personal experience.  Reef & Run is a local, weekly event that consists of a 1km swim and a 2-mile run.  When I entered this event, I had only been in the ocean less than a half dozen times and just became comfortable with right-hand side stroke. I really did not know the difference between morning and evening ocean conditions.  I was an over-confident swimmer that was about to get a huge surprise!

A huge surprise I got.  Standing on the beach that evening and looking at the waves, the surf, and the current moving across, I started to wonder if this was such a great idea.  No one else seemed to be panicked about the conditions, so when the whistle blew, I ran with the other swimmers right into the surf.  I remember hitting the cold water in the trough of a wave and looking up at a four foot wall of water as it came overhead.  Panic would be an understatement. I had only done two strokes and I could not see the first buoy and the cold was making my hands and feet ache.  I kept telling myself to breathe, stroke, kick and keep moving.  Just as I got to the first buoy, I was alone in an unknown environment that my body did not want to be in.  Psychologically, I was not prepared.  In the end I made it to the half way mark of the 1-kilometer swim.  While I was defeated in terms of mental capacity and upset at myself for getting DNF, I gained important insight into what I needed to do to redeem myself. (you can read the post here)

Again, train for the worst and hope for the best.  Having the ability to swim in rough conditions is an important weapon in a swimmer’s arsenal.  Start in the pool and learn the technique, progress to the calm ocean and build the psychology and experience that will help prepare you for the rough conditions.  Finally, test yourself in the rough waters.  At the very least relax and ride the chop, you will have fun.

Some Links:
Open Water Swimming Tips for Triathletes: Overcoming Your Fears (via TriNewbies)
Surviving the Unexpected Rough Swim
(via Competitor Triathlon)
Does Pool Training Really Work? (via TriFuel)
Open Water Swimming for Beginners to Olympians (via 10kSwim.com)

This entry was posted in Goals, Swimming, Tips, Triathlon and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Swim Training: The Role of Rough Water

  1. Pingback: The Sublime Ocean « Aric In Training

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