6 tips for thriving in rough water on a swimrun

Simon Griffiths, founder of Outdoor Swimmer magazine and regular swimrun participant, shares his tips for swimming in rough water

You may have seen the videos from Ötillö Swimrun Malta of waves pummelling participants as they struggle to reach dry land. This event took place in 2019 on a day when an unseasonal storm battered the Mediterranean Island. The conditions were about the most challenging I’ve had to deal with in an event, and I loved it. But not everyone – including my race partner – was as thrilled as me.

Dealing with the weather and conditions is part of the swimrun experience. I faced similar sea conditions at Breca Swimrun Jersey a couple of years previously. To make the most of swimrun, you need to be physically and mentally prepared to deal with the natural environment including rough water.

The best way to prepare yourself to swim in turbulent seas is to train in them. I was lucky that my mother lived in Bude for 25 years, which gave me plenty of opportunities to play in the Cornwall surf. I also lived in West Africa for three years and, when work allowed, I would body surf in the Atlantic. It was a lot of fun. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was also great preparation for swimrun.

Here are my tips for thriving in rough water if you encounter it in a swimrun:

1.       Swim outside as often as you can

Don’t wait for calm, sunny days. There is no guarantee those will be the prevailing conditions on event day. Swim in the wind and the rain as long as it’s safe. Waves and chop on a lake or in a river are different to the sea, but the experience of swimming in tough conditions will help you cope. If you can get to the ocean, even better. Pick a surfing beach for the best waves (but swim in the marked swimming area to avoid being hit by a surfboard).

2.       Ditch the paddles

I’m not a fan of paddles anyway, although I appreciate some people swim faster when using them. However, they are difficult to use in rough conditions, can put excessive load on your shoulders and are liable to catch on waves. I also like to have my hands free for getting into and out of the water too. I’d only recommend paddles in rough seas for strong and experienced swimmers who have practised using them in rough water.

3.       Time your entry and exit

The hardest thing about rough seas can be getting into and out of the water. As you approach the transition, watch the water and figure out how to use it to your advantage. Get a sense of the rhythm of the waves. Timing is crucial. In Malta, the waves were surging over a concrete platform that led to the entry point. Several people were knocked off their feet and slid inelegantly into the sea. The trick was to cross the pier when it was above water, brace yourself for the wave and then slide into the sea with the receding wave. I also remember one exit point in Jersey that was high above the waterline. I had to wait for one wave to lift me enough to grab the ledge and then hang on until a second wave gave me a boost to help me scramble out.

4.       Relax while swimming

Easier said than done, but try to relax and enjoy the battering from the waves rather than battling through. On a long swimrun, you want to conserve energy. It’s tricky to swim fast when your stroke is being messed up and waves are slapping your face. Keep calm, do the best you can and don’t worry. You will still be making progress. If the waves are more regular, try to find a rhythm to your stroke that matches them, even if it means taking shorter or longer strokes than usual.

5.       Keep an eye on your race partner

Rough water makes it harder to keep tabs on your race partner, especially if you are not using a tether. Check more often than usual that they are with you. I’ve never swum tethered in rough water and I’m not sure I’d want to but it will help you stay connected to your partner. Practise first.

6.       Use the water when you can

While rough water slows you down, waves, especially breaking waves, offer opportunities for a free ride if you can body surf. The trick is in the timing. When swimming towards shore, look backwards frequently to monitor the incoming waves. If you see one cresting, kick hard and accelerate. With luck (and some skill), it will pick you up and race you ahead. If you’re swimming into breaking waves, it’s often easier to dive underneath them. Sometimes I bury my hands in the sand like anchors to prevent the waves pulling me back to shore. 

Not all swimruns take place in the sea. If you’re worried about swimming in big waves, check out some of the inland alternatives in lakes. But remember, lakes can get choppy too!

I hope the above helps. Good luck with your event.

Image:  Pierre Mangez/ÖTILLÖ Malta