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by Sara McLarty

March 4, 2021

When water conditions change, slight adjustments to your freestyle are needed

Swimming in a pool allows you to maintain the same stroke technique from the start of your swim to the finish because pools provide good, consistent conditions designed for fast swimming. Deep gutters absorb waves, lines on the bottom help you swim straight, and lane lines limit other swimmers’ wake. It’s a controlled environment.

But the open water presents ever-changing conditions that the open water swimmer’s motto “No Lanes, No Lines, No Walls” only begins to describe.

There are no lane lines to keep swimmers separated, so bumping, pushing, and drafting are all regular occurrences. An important skill is being able to regain your stroke rhythm and forward momentum after contacting another swimmer.

With no lines to follow on the bottom, open water swimmers use sighting, a method of lifting their eyes out of the water to look for the course buoys or landmarks. Frequent sighting is necessary to maintain a straight line on the course, so you’ll need to adjust your technique to keep your legs from sinking.

And with no walls to hang on, how do open water swimmers catch their breath? Switching back and forth from freestyle to backstroke or breaststroke is the easiest way to get some rest while continuing to stay afloat and move forward.

Open water swimmers must be flexible enough to adjust to any of the different conditions that might be present on the course. Successful open water swimmers purposefully change their technique multiple times during a race to maximize their movement through the water based on the conditions they encounter.

Here’s how you can adapt to the different conditions in your open water location.

Choppy Water

The biggest variable for open water swimming is the wind. The direction and speed of the wind will determine whether you’ll face choppy water and have to adapt your stroke.

The most important stroke adaptation in choppy conditions is raising how far your hand and arm come out of the water during your recovery, much like a straight-arm recovery. If your hand is close to the surface, small, choppy waves can easily smack the back of your hand and stop your forward momentum. If you swim with an exaggerated high-elbow recovery in the pool, practice straightening your arm when it’s out of the water to elevate your hand and forearm above the small waves.

Choppy conditions will pummel your body from multiple angles, and cause the water to move in different directions. Alter your technique to take shorter strokes and swim at a faster tempo to make corrections for the imbalances caused by the chop. A higher tempo also allows you to quickly make up for a bad stroke or a weak underwater pull caused by the fluctuating conditions. Olympic triathletes and open water swimmers take an average of 10–15 more strokes per minute than Olympians who swim the 1500.

Try altering your head and breathing position when swimming directly into the wind and waves. Keep your head slightly buried, so you drive a straight line through the waves, rather than bounce up and down. When you turn to take a breath, look slightly backward into your armpit to create a protected cove of air. The back of your head will break oncoming waves and prevent you from getting a mouthful of water. You should also be proficient at bilateral breathing, so you can breathe on the opposite side of the chop.

Rolling Waves

Rolling waves are cyclical swells in an ocean, and are larger and more predictable than chop. But these conditions aren’t independent of each other. You can have chop on the surface of the rolling ocean for a particularly challenging race day. If that’s the case, perform the stroke alterations for choppy water and then address the rolling waves.

As you swim away from the beach, allow yourself to flow up and over each rolling wave. Make small adjustments with your body to maintain full contact with the water. Arch your back and shorten your strokes as you sweep up the front of the wave, and then try to keep your head and arms in contact with the water by bending at your waist and lengthening your strokes as you slide down the back of the wave.

When you turn parallel to shore, continue to adjust your body and arms as each wave lifts and rolls under you. Use a high recovery on the side waves are approaching from to keep yourself from hitting the wave and hurting your forward momentum. If you can see or feel a wave approaching, breathe on the side away from the wave. Breathing into the wave as you float up its face will require more rotation to raise your face out of the water and breath above it.

Sighting in rolling waves is all about timing. Plan the lifting of your head and forward glance to look for buoys or other landmarks for when you’re cresting on top of a wave. The waves will block your view of the course the remainder of the time. You can also use the shoreline as a reference to reduce the need for sighting ahead of you, as long as you maintain a constant distance from it as you swim parallel to it.

Breaking Waves

Swimming through breaking waves is a fun challenge for an experienced open water swimmer but can be a scary task for a beginner. The water is literally working against you by pushing you into shore. The timing of each action described below is critical to efficiently swimming out past the breakers.

While your feet are still in contact with the bottom, you can jump up and over small waves or forward and under larger waves. When you get to deeper water, start swimming with your head up, looking forward for the next breaking wave. Pay attention to how fast the wave is rolling toward you and prepare to go underwater. Just before the wave reaches you, take a big breath and use one last stroke to dive under the wave.

Keep one or both of your arms extended forward to protect your head from hitting anything under the water (such as another swimmer, the bottom, or rocks), and kick hard as the wave rolls over you. Use your arms to pull yourself back to the surface, immediately take a breath, and then look forward for the next wave. Depending on the wavelength and frequency, you might have time for one breath and one stroke or time to swim for a bit before diving under the next wave.

Be Safe

The more times you can train in the open water, the more comfortable and confident you’ll become at adapting to the water conditions. Always swim with at least one partner, always wear a bright cap (and consider using a bright tow float), and never swim in a situation in which you feel uncomfortable. And before trying any of these adaptations in open water, practice them in the pool during your next workout.


  • Open Water
  • Triathlon


  • Open Water
  • Triathlon