Ocean Swim Tactics


Posted by Coach Jay Weber

Having lived in Southern California, I sometimes forget how good I have it when it comes to prepping for the swim portion of a race. I can and do swim in rough, open water all year round. Growing up on lakes in New Hampshire, I had it pretty easy when it came to swimming outside of a pool with fresh water lakes that get pretty warm in the summer. For us in California, the water never gets nearly as warm as it does on the lake inland, it also never really gets unbearably cold. With the ocean comes chop, rolling waves, and funny tasting water. But there is something cathartic to being in the ocean, once it clicks. For me, it took about a year of swimming in the ocean once a week before it went from something I had to do, to something that I wanted to do.

There are many unique elements to a swim in the ocean – the water tastes funny, crashing waves make it challenging to get out and to get back in, there is current to contend with, and even some topsy-turvy weather that can make sighting and breathing difficult. Plus there are those critters under the sea!

The first thing to swimming in the ocean is to remember it as a kid. If you never visited the ocean as a child, just watch one at the beach. They play for hours, just enjoying the time there.  Inherently there is so much we can learn from kids – they are fearless, and haven’t been jaded by the reality of the repercussion of their actions.

Before you start the swim, it is best to see what the current is doing. This is a simple test – go out to waist deep water, turn around and look at the shore and find a fixed object. Lay down on your back, and down kick or paddle. Count to 20. Stand up again and see where you’ve gone. This will help you calibrate and provide some feedback on whether the current will make the swim challenging at the beginning or at the end.

Once you get over the fear of the power of the ocean, and start to respect it, you can really enjoy it! Getting beyond the waves is the first challenge. Water is about 1,000x denser than air, so the quicker you stop fighting it, the faster you’ll go, and less energy you’ll use. When you’re knee deep in the water, it is time to start swimming. If a wave is coming, the best way to address it is to duck under it, as steeply as possible so that the wave will pass you and you won’t have to fight it. If you pop up and see a wave coming, go under as quickly as you can, even if it is just a second. This will help you from getting pushed back to the shore.

La Jolla Cove Seal Beach where Coach Jay routinely swims


You’ve now made it past the breaking water, and want to swim, but the waves are still rolling. The best way to keep your breathing under control, your stomach under control, and swimming straight is to find a fixed object- preferably the highest object you can find. Moving objects will change your perception, and make it challenging for you to keep you stomach in check. To prepare for the worst of situations, practicing your bilateral breathing (breathing on both sides) to help you attack any swim that the ocean throws at you. (Drinking ocean water isn’t fun, and probably isn’t very good for you either)

Now to address the critters. I think it is amazingly awesome that we get to share the home of so many cool under water creatures, but not everyone thinks the same way as I do. My mantra is to control the controllables, and one of those controllables is my attitude. I think it is awesome to swim in the ocean, and often see something swimming under me. It could be a fish, a turtle, a sting ray, or even a seal. This is their home, and I think it is awesome to get to see them, when most people have to pay to go to an aquarium to see it. The vast majority of the critters don’t want to harm you, and don’t even care about you. While it is easier said than done, think of something that does make you happy while you are swimming. It is better to have fun doing something we are doing, than not enjoy it- so the better you can enjoy it, the better your training will go!

Don't fear the ocean! Respect and enjoy it!

~ Coach Jay Weber

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