The sea can present many different challenges to your normal swim stroke. For example, in choppy water, if you keep your fingers just above the surface of the water, then you are quite likely to have an unexpected wave come along and cause your hand to enter the water below your shoulder. In order to allow a reasonable stroke, you need to have a much higher recovery with your hand in open water.
Top Tips for Sea Swimming Techniques:
1. Sighting in swell:
Due to the size of the swell you’ll either need to lift your head higher, or sight on the crest of the wave. Pick something on the beach to sight on thats fixed, and white if possible. If it’s choppy sight more regularly as much as is needed to maintain your track and become aware of your position in relation to this. Normally in open water you should sight every 6-8 strokes. Be aware that the currents and the waves can move you around more forwards back and sideways. Roll with the waves more and don't fight the currents or tides. When a wave picks you up and moves you faster swim harder with it. Ease off when its pulling you the other direction.
2. Sea Navigation:
Sight on objects that stand out more, are different shapes or shades. When in the sea this can obviously be harder. Sight on the crest of the waves if the sea is choppy. You'll roll a bit more in these conditions. You can also sight horizontally towards the beach and aim to keep the distance the same as you're swimming along.
3. Bilateral breathing:
It’s recommended to be able to breathe bilaterally whilst swimming in the sea, for 2 reasons. One is for making sure you hold your position in a group and to make sure the currents are not moving you around too much, and 2, if you’re swimming a rectangular course and the swell is high, then sighting towards the beach going out and back, will stop you swallowing lots of water, if you’re breathing in towards a wave.
4. Drafting in currents:
If there is a current pulling you away from the first buoy, try angling yourself into the current more. So if the current pulls you to the right, swim more over to the left about 30 degrees, so you’ll then be drifting in an arc to the right spot to turn next to the buoy.
Running in the water up to knee height, flick your feet and lower legs out laterally and your knees inward slightly, with a jump to help you to clear the breaking waves. (This is dependent of course on the size of the waves). If the waves are bigger than knee height and breaking then duck diving through them will work better. Make yourself like a spear for duck diving and expect to be swirled around a little.This will be more effective than trying to swim at this height. You'll float up to the surface and then be able to swim. You may have to do this a few times before being able to get into your rhythm.
To get past the breaking waves, its best to use a dolphining technique. This involves a mixture of a butterfly swim technique, with launching yourself into a dive, touching the sea bed / sand with your hands and then pushing yourself back up with your hands and feet again into a dive. Keep performing this action until the water is about waist deep, where you'll be able to start swimming normally and get into your rhythm better.
7. Beach starts:
Running into the sea at pace should be practised if you have a sea swim start like Ironman Lanzarote, or Ironman Wales (the latter running down at an angle). Make sure there are no rocks etc or sharp objects in the water where you are going to practise. Run at pace for 20-30 metres into the water, then swim a triangular loop for 1-200 metres before coming back to the beach. Repeat this 5-10 times with a minute rest in between. You can do this in teams too and tag your team mates when you get back to the group. Practise the above techniques of wading, dolphining and sea sighting as you do these. it will feel different at race pace.
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Nick is a level 3 British Triathlon coach, Training Peaks level 1 coach, Training Bible coaching master endurance coach. He is also an STA level 2 Swim Teacher, Open water coach and was one of the key coaches who helped re design the STA Open Water Course manual, focusing on the sea swimming section in particular.