Swimming in the open water can be a terrifying prospect… Whether it is in the ocean or in a dam or a lake, a swimmer will always be confronted with the unknown, the unseen and the unheard; which convinces many swimmers (brilliant as well as average) to leave the stretch of water unswum! But for many others, these factors add to the appeal of open water swimming. Whether you are looking to finish a mile event, swim from Robben Island to Cape Town, or cross the English Channel; it’s really just about getting to the other side; swimming until the water runs out!
Moreso than most other sports, in open water swimming you are competing against the elements. No one can control Nature; weather (wind!), water temperature, currents, tides and sea life (jelly fish, blue bottles, and of course the presence of “bigger fish”) are just a few factors that can stand between any swimmer and a successful swim. And then, when Mother Nature has decided to smile on you, one is faced by probably the biggest challenge of them all: controlling your mind. This isn’t a huge stumbling block in shortish open water races (i.e. distances of 5km and under), as the swimmer has the incentive of chasing a position, and there are other swimmers in the water, as well as plenty of support. But when attempting a solo swim (i.e. not competing against other swimmers as part of an organised race), or in long distance races (15-40km) with quite a spread-out field, the mind tends to start questioning what the body is doing and why. You are all alone (apart from the crew on your support craft whom you can see chatting along and having sandwiches every time you take a breath), you often can’t see the finish, and the pain and cold sends the message to the brain that you really ought to get out of the water and take up ping pong!
BUT that being said, swimming in open water (especially the ocean) can be an addictive, stimulating and even spiritual experience. So how do you beat the elements? Here are a few tips – more from a philosophical than a technical point of view.
MAKE PEACE AND RELAX
Once you have made the decision to attempt an open water swim, you need to have accepted the fact that you are now in nature, and that you are not completely in control. Fear of the unknown is NOT going to get you across, so you really need to make peace with the elements, and try to concentrate on enjoying the experience. Stress, choppy water and water temperatures that will possible be colder than you are used to, will cause tension that will not help your stroke and rhythm. So if you’re not “happy in the water”, try to think good thoughts; or try to think nothing at all! I usually swim “on a song” – whatever tune pops into my head can keep me going for a long time. And you can adjust the rhythm and tempo of the song to suit your stroke!
Even if you are racing, I believe that we should be using the water as an ally; not a hasard. Never fight the water, even when you are having to swim against huge chop. We naturally want to swim harder and almost “attack the water”, which just takes up a lot of energy, and often leads to an aggravated state of mind. All you can really do is accept the conditions and try to find “a path” through the water by adjusting your stroke. You might have to slow your stroke down or lift your body and arms out of the water a bit more on each stroke.
BUT DO NOT COMPROMISE THE PRINCIPLES OF GOOD SWIMMING TECHNIQUE
of which the most important is – from my non-technical point of view:
A balanced body: You will know when your body is well-balanced in the water – you won’t be fighting to keep your legs from sinking, and taking a breath would not be a life-death situation. You need to feel comfortable; and in my view, you achieve this by dropping your head (i.e. not ever looking for the wall while training in a pool), as this will cause your legs to rise. Imagining that you are actually “swimming downhill” helps to achieve this.
Do not make big radical moves in order to take a breath; all you really need to do is turn your head 90 degrees, as if trying to look around your shoulder without moving your body. If the water is rough you will get water in your mouth now and then, but IF YOU ARE RELAXED, you should be able to get rid of it during your stroke, and take a breath on the next one.
You have to take every body of water as it comes. Remember the principle of staying relaxed and balanced, and adjust your stroke around that.
PUSHING YOUR BODY AND MIND
You will probably experience pain (shoulders and even hips and legs) during a long swim in rough water, but sometimes one has to actually indulge in the pain in order to swim through it. Acknowledge it, and then beat it by focusing on the challenge and hopefully achieving it! The anguish of swimming long distances in cold, choppy water can only really be understood by those who have experienced it. It is not only painful but also confusing (most swimmers have huge arguments with themselves!), extremely lonely, and often very frustrating (due to elements beyond our control such as wind, currents, sea life, etc). Break your swim up in segments of 30 minutes or an hour, and focus just on getting to the next segment. Keep yourself busy by focusing on something specific – improving your breathing, try to fight the chop by stroking deeper, listening to that song – anything to fill the time, really! It’s much easier swimming going for an all-day swim, than swimming 35km anyway!
And with the attitude that you can always go further, and for longer, and maybe even faster, come hell or high water, until you get there; there’s not much that can stop you, is there?!