Navigating the Ocean Swim


Posted by Coach Jay Weber

More than 70% of the earth is covered by water and of that 97% is the ocean. Many triathletes never get the opportunity to race in the ocean. Now that I live in San Diego, I swim in the ocean on a frequent basis. In addition to the water tasting different than fresh water, it also impacts your actual swim.


In the ocean you will be more buoyant, and since much of the racing we do is in a wetsuit, you will float even more than you do in a normal lake race. You won’t need to change your stroke because of it, but for those of us that did not grow up as a swimmer, it will help us even more by keeping us on top of the water.

Waves and Currents

One of the biggest challenges that people experience with ocean swims is the waves and currents. Currents and tides are constantly changing, so what happened in your ocean swim yesterday might not happen today, and it might be worse or more challenging than when you were last in. The first step to an ocean swim is understanding what the water is doing.

Before you get in, look at the shoreline and see what the water looks like. For the inexperienced ocean swimmer, if you see lots of surfers, it’s probably a good idea not to go for a big swim, as swimmers like water flat and surfers like big waves. This does not however mean that all is lost.

Start by looking at the waves, and counting the number of waves that break in a row before a small break. The break in waves may not be a long enough to get in and past the waves. In that case, you can go in waist deep as the wave series comes to an end, then you will have fewer waves to swim past and fight.

If you are going to swim past the waves, you want to get under the wave when it is coming to you. Water is between 800 and 1,000 times denser than air, and it doesn't take much water to push you with great force. There is a lot of energy to the ocean waves, so it's best to use it to your advantage.  As the wave comes towards you, the wave will crest and start to crash, right as the wave is at the top, and starts to come down is when you want to go underwater and swim forward. If you are in water that is less than 3’ deep, you want to go to the bottom and swim along the ocean bottom. If it is more than 3’ deep, go approximately 3 – 4’ below the surface, and swim forward.

Once you are outside of the breaking waves, current will be the next issue you want to address. It is challenging enough to swim in a straight line with the black line at the bottom of the pool, but when we have other elements pushing us around, and no black line, it is even more difficult. To find out what the current is doing, you will want to face the shore and find a point that is directly in front of you. Once you have found your point, lie on you back, and don’t kick or move. Count to 15 and then pop up and see where you have moved. This will enable you to adjust your stroke. The side that has the “push” will be the side you will want to use less strength on to swim in a straighter line.

Swimming Straight

Since there is no magical black line at the bottom of the pool, you will need a gauge to know if you are swimming in a straight line. Sighting off of stationary high objects is the best way to keep an eye on how straight you’re swimming. I like to find a tree on the top of a hill that lines up with my end target. I test to see how straight I am swimming for that day by counting 10 strokes and then see where I am with the target. Some days I account for the current well, and some days I need to sight more often.

Swim Stroke

The ocean is rarely without waves. Since the energy in the waves can cost you energy, I like to alter my open water swim stroke as well. I try to swim with a straighter arm recovery in open water to keep my hand from getting caught up in the waves. The waves can also mean water in your mouth if you are unable to complete bilateral breathing, so I encourage all of my athletes to learn to breathe to both sides comfortably before getting in the open ocean.

Exiting the ocean

Once you are nearing the end of the swim, you will get to see the waves from the other side. This time, you should use their energy to your benefit. They will push you in, if you let them, which will allow you free speed. For swimming in with waves, you need to now sight in back of you. As you breathe, you will want to look back to see when the waves are coming in. If a wave is start to crest, put your arms in straight out in front of you, get as long as you can, and emulate your favorite super hero.

You will see many athletes getting up and not swimming as soon as they can stand, some wait until they are waist deep, but the best will wait until they can’t swim any farther. Since the tides can change the terrain of the floor, I have found it best to have my hand touch sand a minimum of 3 times before standing up. You might be on a sandbar, and when you come up, you may now be in a deep section again.


If this is a swim, and not a race, it is time to hit the showers. Get rid of the salt for your next activities of the day.  If it is a race, get out of your wetsuit or speedsuit as quickly as possible, and jump on the bike. I will use a bit of my water to rinse off my neck if the water was extra salty, but the showers take extra time, and don’t necessarily rinse you as well as you might have hoped.

The ocean is a magical place, if you let it be. I have been swimming with dolphins and turtles for free, and seen many types of other living creatures that are amazing. Enjoy the experience, enjoy the view, and maximize your fun.


Coach Jay Weber is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach who's completed 25+ Triathlon/Duathlon events including Ironman. Since 2009, Coach Jay has worked with five triathlon Team in Training groups, bringing over 200 participants into the sport of triathlon. Jay officiates 12 to 15 events per year for USAT (Cat 3 Official), IRONMAN, and ITU (Level 2 Official). He has served as the Head Official and Assistant for USAT and has worked in every single ITU officiating position (number about 20). Jay serves as a race director for the San Diego Tri Club, helps with Challenged Athlete Foundation camps, and works as the Director of Sales for XTERRA Boards as well as Director of West Coast Sales for XTERRA Wetsuits. He specializes in working with youth and those new to the sport. He can be reached at

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