When the going gets rough, I'm not so tough.

curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

I did a 5K race this weekend. (I know, sprint distance on this forum). I had trained up reasonably well and had set some pretty solid goals for the race. At the start I immediately recognized that someone had turned the wind in the wrong direction and it was pointed directly opposite of the swim direction. Needless to say, this was not exactly what I had hoped for. We all headed off and I started with my traditionally slow start. This was made even slower because the waves were just banging me around and I was swimming like crap. I couldn’t get a rhythm going and soon I realized that this wasn’t going to be my day.

The waves finally relented toward the end of the race and as things smoothed out I reeled in a whole pile of people who were in front of me. A lot of them were wetsuit clad and a lot of them were in my wave. So at least that was kind of fun. But a guy who I beat by a minute last year, beat me by a minute this year.

So a few key things that I’m pondering. Why am I so terrible once the waves kick up? The fact that I was able to reel in a bunch of people once the water smoothed out a bit has me thinking that I was a faster swimmer than they were, but they crushed me in the waves. Do they float better than me? I know I wasn’t swimming strong in the waves, I was just plowing ahead and trying to not drink half the lake. I also know that I wasn’t keeping as straight a course as I do in calmer water, which didn’t help.

What should I do regarding technique? I’ve really modified my stroke and corrected a few bad habits. I have been using high elbows, which has balanced out my stroke and oddly enough, made my kick a little more effective. I tried to maintain good form despite being bashed around. But maybe I need to do a modified technique for rougher water.

I’m pretty much a lake swimmer. When I think about you ocean swimmers, I have to tip my hat because I’m sure the waves I was in would be considered a calm day for you guys. So maybe ocean swimming technique is different than lake swimming. (I know that the few gulps of water I took on in the lake would have been a little more consequential in the ocean, that’s for sure.) I also wonder about the buoyancy question, as it seems one is a bit more buoyant in the ocean. Does this help when you are thrashing about in the waves? This is one reason I was curious about the wetsuit guys killing me in the waves, but they were easy to reel in once things calmed down a bit. I don’t think it was because I was more rested than they were. We all were swimming in the same mess.

My last thought is regarding pacing. I swam slower than normal through the waves. But I could have kept that pace up all day. It was work, but it wasn’t really a race pace. I just couldn’t get moving strongly. Once I got into calmer water, I switched gears and started racing. I definitely couldn’t keep up that race pace all day. I can’t decide if I just was a baby in the waves and mentally gave up or if I was doing the best I could, but I suck…


  • brunobruno Barcelona (Spain)Senior Member

    My 5 cents:

    In waves, it's all about "synchronizing" with the waves: adapt your strokes, your breath and your kick, timing them so that you avoid, as much as possible, loosing the "tempo" of your stroke. This means that sometimes you breath after 3 strokes instead of 2, or you slide a little bit while waiting the wave to pass, or you do 3 quick strokes when you are at the trough of the wave in order to "climb" it... Then you feel like you are dancing with the waves instead of fighting them. Think of you creating your own controlled imbalance, rather than letting the waves make you lose balance.

    But all depends on the relative direction between swim and waves, and on the height of the waves, and how long they are. Different situations require different techniques. You need to practice in different seas, and a few years later you sort of "get the feeling" on how to slide through waves.

    Training at the lane beside that of the waterpolo team (or flyers team, or when the team is doing kick sets) is a good training.

    And with waves is when you find the biggest difference between wetsuits/skins: with the wetsuit you don't need any effort to float. This is crucial in heading waves, because you jump from the top of one wave to the following trough, in fact you are diving, but after that you have to emerge, wasting energy... You can choose to control your dive, even swim across the next wave instead of climbing it if this helps you maintain momentum. Again, control your (inevitable) imbalance. I find this (heading waves) particularly fun.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    Thank you @bruno for your description of dancing in the waves. As a lake swimmer, I don't often get the opportunity to practice in rough water. When we get any kind of waves, it's more like chop. Mostly the waves come from speedboats. I clearly have some learning to do in order to swim effectively in rougher water.

    Your observation about the improved floatation with a wetsuit confirms what I was thinking. I was baffled how those guys got so far ahead of me in the waves, yet they were easily caught in the calmer water. I was convinced it had to have something to do with the wetsuit, but I really don't know the science behind all this.

    My final observation is that there is still a mental component to this. I think I let the waves take me out of my game. I'm pretty good at swimming my race and not letting outside factors mess with me. But I'm pretty sure that the bouncing around and flailing away caused me to back off more than I should have. In other words, I gave up a little too easily. Gonna have to work on that...

  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USSenior Member

    curly said:
    .... I can’t decide if I just was a baby in the waves and mentally gave up or if I was doing the best I could, but I suck…

    @curly You are being much too hard on yourself! From your description, it doesn't sound like any of the above are true. Especially the "I suck" part. You tried to adapt to the unexpected conditions. You aren't satisfied with how it went so you're asking for further advice. That's awesome. Does it matter that you could (maybe) have finished a little faster?

    With pool swimming it's pretty simple. Did you improve your time? Did you beat the guy next to you? With OW swimming the questions are often, what were the conditions? Did you manage them okay? Did you finish? if you DNFed, was it preventable? Did you push any limits? Did you learn anything? Did you make any friends?

    The Open Water community celebrates Jackie Cobell for having the tenacity, stamina and heart to swim the English Channel in 28:44. That's the slowest EC crossing ever. It's not just about speed.


    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • bluemermaid9bluemermaid9 Boca Raton, FL, United StatesSenior Member

    First of all: @JSwim says, 'Did you make any friends?' This is golden!

    Second: I'm not the fastest fishie out there, but I can pass people in the chop (then they pass me back if it's flat). I did grow up swimming in the ocean. One of the tricks of the trade, taught by my coach, is to adapt your stroke to the conditions. E.g. you should be able to breathe bilaterally, or only left, or only right. This versatility will help you breathe in the chop, depending on where it comes from. Another is to maintain your cadence despite the slapping and pounding. This requires a bit of finesse, like finding your niche among the chop. I'm afraid practice is the best way to achieve this. It also helps to be a strong swimmer, so that you don't get tired. I'm a firm believer in weight training as a means to fight muscle fatigue. Lastly, the location where your hand enters the water makes a difference in choppy waters. According to my coach, if you shorten your stroke, i.e. your hand enters closer to your head, rather than stretching out your arm away from your head, you have better control of your body position. This has worked wonders for me. I'm by no means an expert, but I love swimming in choppy water.

    Third: please don't compare yourself with people swimming in wetsuits. It's like comparing a sailboat and a powerboat. They both traverse the water, but very differently.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    Hey thanks for the advice and consolation. I definitely tend to beat myself up when I don't hit my expectations in a race. I get all nervous with anticipation and I hate the build up to a race. But once I'm in the water and going, I will race anything that moves. I don't care that they are in wetsuits, I try to beat them anyway. (Did I tell you about the time there was an ex-Olympic swimmer in our lane? Yep, I tried to keep up with him too...) So yes, I'm ridiculous when it comes to racing. But I figure there's no point to racing unless your intention is to win.

    I really like the above advice for working with the waves. My limited experience in the ocean involves frolicking in the waves and it's really fun, but I haven't really tried swimming a distance in real waves. The lake waves I usually experience are much more timid and I haven't really paid attention to working with them rather than fighting the whole thing. You would think I would know better. I'm very comfortable in the water and I totally understand the relationship. So I will have to work to remind myself that the relationship doesn't change just because I'm in a race.

    Regarding the ideas of swimming for the whole fun of it, yep, completely on board with that. I've made some good friends swimming. I chatted with the guy who beat me and he's a real decent person. He's a pretty darn good swimmer and it's always one of my goals to beat him. This wasn't my day, but it was fun to chat with him and I'm sure we will look each other up at the next race.

    Regarding Jackie Cobell's time crossing the EC for the slowest time ever. I think it's important to note that this is faster than I ever have, or ever will cross the EC. So yes, you are right. Sometimes it's just the fact that you did the swim and the time is less important. I'm going to go do some fun swims and not watch the clock. And who knows, maybe I'll figure out how to bounce around in the waves without getting all flustered.

  • BridgetBridget New York StateMember

    Sprint distance or not, all bets are off when you are in the ocean! :) I love the ocean, and made the shift to actually swimming in it when I go visit rather than just playing in the waves, and it is very different. I used to pool swim, and recently got back to it, but I'm mainly a lake swimmer these days, due to proximity- and the choppiest, stormiest day on the lake is NOT the ocean- although it is great fun. ;)

    The comments about dancing with the ocean, finding the groove of the water motion and working with it are all right on target. I just had a long weekend at the ocean and was trying to be a bit analytical as I did my laps. I was just past the breakers. (I told the guards on the state beach I'd be doing laps, and used a floaty buoy. Granted, I did leave the beach and swam the length of about three different beach areas, but it worked out.)

    One thing that I noticed was that there were times when my pull was wonky due to needing to accommodate change in direction or going around swimmers. We all know that shoulders are a priority, and good stroke tech is important, but we also need to remember that a full range of motion is important for when the less-used directions are called upon. Also, as BlueMermaid said, breathing options are priceless. A good spit reflex also helps. ;)

    Now, in the pool and lake, with calm water, I'm fairly consistent, so although I did drive the length of Atlantic Ave that I'd be swimming, and it was about a mile and a half, the time it took to cover that distance varied wildly over the course of the weekend. I'm training for Boston Light, so my big focus was straight out hours at a brisk pace in the ocean. I had a snack in my buoy, but did not stop for it, even on my 4 hour swim. A nice tidal assist in Boston would be lovely! I did have an occasion last summer to swim the length of the beach, and when I got to Sam's Snack Shack, I pretty much swam in place for 45 minutes. For some reason, that stretch of beach is noted for rip currents, so I likely found one, but had my buoy, kept my pace, and didn't seem to freak out the guards. After a while, I got tired of stationary swimming, and had been in a few hours, so I got out and walked back to the beach where I parked.

    So, quit with the beating yourself up stuff!! :D The ocean is a joyride! Give yourself time to find your stride.

    And as much as I love the ocean, my pre-work swim back in my lake Wednesday was lovely! They knew I was going to be late, so I did an extra mile because it just felt GREAT-- and even a few days in the ocean made me feel stronger in the lake. ENJOY!!!!

  • ColmBreathnachColmBreathnach Charter Member

    I've found that physically stronger and bigger swimmers do better in rough conditions. Also you need to adapt to the conditions, shorten / lengthen your stroke depending on whats coming at you. It's easy to pick up an injury if your arm is in the recovery position and you get hit with 3ft of white water. Go under the big stuff.

    Conversely, when swimming with swell, give an extra kick when you feel your legs being lifted, you can surf down the front of the wave.

    You can't beat a bit of rough and tumble !

  • evmoevmo SydneyAdmin
    edited July 2018

    ColmBreathnach said:
    I've found that physically stronger and bigger swimmers do better in rough conditions.

    Like 14-year old Vera Rivard, one of just two swimmers to finish the recent 25-mile crossing of Lake Memphremagog -- in Force 4-5 conditions for the first half.


    By which I mean, I see no evidence for the assertion that big/strong people are better in rough conditions.

  • MoCoMoCo Worcester, MASenior Member
    edited July 2018

    In addition to the physical things people mentioned, mindset is so important. I decided that I love hilly swims, and I actually say that to myself every time I stand on a beach and look at choppy water (and midway through when I get a mouthful of water instead of air...). And when the kids have a cannonball contest in the lane next to my lap lane, same thing. When I'm building for an event, I purposefully do some of my long lake swims in the afternoon on the weekends, when it's choppy from the wind and there's a ton of waterskiers out. Now when I show up at a start line for a swim that's choppier that's expected, I have all that history of positive self talk and and the attitude that harder swims build a courage reference for the next scary thing. Super helpful when the going gets hard on something that is important to me.

    That being said, this reminds me that I need to get my lazy butt back in the ocean. It's just enough of a drive that I never seem to go swim there.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    @evmo Thanks for the article. I was a little worried that I'd have to bulk up. I have a physique more like a 14 year old girl, so I'm pretty happy to see that it ain't all about muscling your way through the waves. I'm still trying to feel the rhythm and ride the waves, but I'm afraid it's like me in 7th grade dance classes. It's so weird because I like playing in the waves, but actually trying to swim and make a determined progress is still a work in progress.

    @MoCo Yep, I really think mindset played a huge role in my poor performance. I sort of beat myself up before the waves did. Funny thing is that I actually didn't do all that bad in the race in hindsight. I just wanted to do a whole lot better. I wanted to be in the top 20 and I was 24th. I probably got beaten by a couple 14 year old girls...

  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member

    Never underestimate the might of 14 year old girls.

  • MoCoMoCo Worcester, MASenior Member


    discussing running, but highly applicable to marathon swimming (and, probably everything else in life...)

  • ColmBreathnachColmBreathnach Charter Member

    evmo said:

    ColmBreathnach said:
    I've found that physically stronger and bigger swimmers do better in rough conditions.

    Like 14-year old Vera Rivard, one of just two swimmers to finish the recent 25-mile crossing of Lake Memphremagog -- in Force 4-5 conditions for the first half.


    By which I mean, I see no evidence for the assertion that big/strong people are better in rough conditions.

    I should have said usually, but there are always outliers ;-)

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    KarenT said:
    Never underestimate the might of 14 year old girls.

    Yeah, I think I learned that in 7th grade dance class too... :\">

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    MoCo said:

    discussing running, but highly applicable to marathon swimming (and, probably everything else in life...)

    Hey @MoCo, that was a good article and I think it spoke to what I experienced. The first time I ever did that race, the waves were pretty ridiculous and I got sloshed around and basically had a great deal of fun on my first time out. I had no expectations and just wanted to do the race. I ended up winning my age group and was all excited and everything.

    The next year I went in with the expectation that it was going to be really rough. I was ready to get beat up and broken down. Well, it turned out that it was pretty calm and I tore up the course. I beat this guy that I'd never beat before and was feeling pretty much on top of the world.

    So this year I was ready to break the world record and wipe out everyone, including the 14 year old girls. And as they say, the rest is history. So I think when I do this race next year I'm going to anticipate gale force winds, big muscular dudes, jet skis, jelly fish (a newly discovered lake species) and of course, evil 14 year old girls who want revenge...

  • AzskiAzski ArizonaMember
    edited August 2018

    MoCo said: https://www.peakperformancebook.net/single-post/2018/05/30/Expecting-Easy-Makes-Things-Hard discussing running, but highly applicable to marathon swimming (and, probably everything else in life...)

    This article reminds me of a Mike Tyson quote, (the boxer, not the swimmer);
    "Everyone has a game plan until they get punch in the face!"

  • SydneDSydneD Senior Member

    ColmBreathnach said:
    I've found that physically stronger and bigger swimmers do better in rough conditions.

    I don't agree. I am not bigger, and yet, my husband is always excited when there is chop at a race because he knows I will perform better. And often, because I am able to stay calm in those conditions, that's what really makes the difference.

  • swimmer25kswimmer25k Charter Member

    Lots of great stuff here. I often would train in crappy weather and conditions because it might end up that way on race day. There's no substitute for training in the elements.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    @swimmer25k I've still got to convince my kayaker that it's a great idea to go out on a crappy day. She is not as crazy as most of us and I do have to continue living with her. So there's that...

    Meanwhile we have had so much smoke from the fires that are burning down the western side of the continent, that I have put a stop to outdoor swimming at the moment. Not exactly the kind of crappy conditions that I want to train for. I will live to swim another day...

  • @Curly, I just wanted to thank you for starting this thread, I read it and reread it and got some great ideas that really saved my butt on race day. I live outside the city of Chicago, far enough that I rarely make it in for fun and very rarely to just swim in the lake. My first race in the lake 3 years ago was after a temperature inversion, so the water was 39-40 degrees on the course- the last weekend of July! (Needless to say this did not make a fan out of me)

    This year my calendar included 2 lake Michigan swims- the first was as pleasant and as close to pool conditions as you could have asked for. The other... wow... it was Lake Michigan at her finest. We had 3-4 foot swells and chop and it just got worse from there. It was like swimming in a washing machine!

    All I could think of was this thread and keeping a positive mindset and go dance with the waves!!! I focused on my breathing and watching the water to time my stroke- I have never been so happy to be a right sided breather in my life! It was crazy and fun, and pushed my comfort zone, but I am so glad I did it.

  • glennglenn cape town SAMember

    I'm not the greatest or strongest swimmer but I've enjoyed some of the swims with slightly rougher water conditions. It takes me a while to get my head into the game but once in I enjoy it. At the end I feel like I've achieved something. When I did my robben island swim the conditions were perfect and I had so much energy at the end that it didn't feel right that I had finished the swim so easily. Part of me hopes that the conditions are little tougher next time so I might possibly feel like I'll have earned it a bit more. But I agree with the comments above.

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