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How to use rough water conditions to your advantage

Kevin Koskella explains how to cope with swimming in rough water.

Recently I participated in a 1-mile ocean swim in San Clemente, California. Although the water was warm enough (around 68 degrees), it was a rough water swim! It caught me by surprise, as from the beach, it did not look bad at all. While I was swimming, I thought of some ideas that should make rough water swim a little easier to deal with:

  1. Dive under the waves going out, not over them. Unless they are small waves, below your waist, pushing off the bottom and diving through the wave will prevent you from getting pushed backward
  2. Take the outside. The small amount of time you will save trying to swim inside with the pack before getting to the first buoy is not worth it. Taking the outside path will save you from getting punched, swallowing water, having your feet grabbed, etc. Some of this will happen at the crowded start anyway, but you can cut down on it by not going with the pack
  3. Take wide turns around the buoys. While everyone else is trying to come as close to the buoy as possible around a turn, take the road less travelled and go wide. Again, it is not going to save you enough time to cut inside, and you will have more clear water on the outside
  4. Breathe only to one side to avoid swallowing water. If you can see the waves coming towards you on one side, breathe to the other side until you can get around the next buoy. I learned this the hard way and ended up with a few pints of salt water in my belly!
  5. Avoid too much sighting. It is tempting to lift your head in rough conditions. However, you are still better off keeping your stroke long and your head down. Ideally, you will find someone to follow, and you will not have to lift your head as much (unless they steer you in the wrong direction!)
  6. Before the race starts, pick out a prominent marker on the shore that you can swim towards at the finish. I usually do this, but somehow did not think of it on Saturday. It was not fun when I came out of the water about 40 yards to the left of the finish line and had to run that length (running is not my strength).

Of course, we would all like to have calm water that does not give us these challenges. However, if you come prepared, you can use rough water conditions to your advantage!

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2007) How to use rough water conditions to your advantage. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 39/ February), p. 13

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2007) How to use rough water conditions to your advantage [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Kevin Koskella coaches masters and triathlete swimmers in San Diego, CA. He operates the website, a resource for beginner to intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming.