Have you got that sinking feeling in whitewater?

Does it feel like you're going nowhere fast when swimming in whitewater? Learn how the density of water affects your ability to swim efficiently in turbulent whitewater and how to best negotiate it.

Here’s a question for you.

I want you to read it and answer it as fast as you can.

In the surf zone, when you swim in turbulent whitewater, full of air bubbles, do you sink or float in it?

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If you said float… you’d be wrong.

Your thinking is that air bubbles float to the surface, so they must lift you to the surface too, but this is incorrect.

The correct answer is that you will sink (congrats if you got it right!).

Why?

Because turbulent whitewater is less dense than green/blue clean water.

When you swim in turbulent whitewater, your body will sink slightly below the water surface, therefore increasing drag and requiring the use of more energy to pull it through the water.

You’ll also find that when you go to breathe, your mouth is sitting lower in the water amongst the turbulence, so there’s every chance you’ll find it more difficult and distracting to get a good breath without getting water in your mouth.

On top of this, the lower density water will offer less resistance for your arms to catch and pull, so you’ll find your stroke rate increases, and you get less distance per stroke, as you have less water to pull.

Knowing that swimming in whitewater is inefficient should be in the back of your mind as you negotiate waves on the way out through the surf.

To avoid the whitewater, start your dive early (in the dense green/blue water), get deep enough to avoid the turbulence, and surface well behind the wave where the whitewater has dissipated and the water is once again nice and dense for swimming. (Read more about timing)

On the way back to shore it’s a slightly different proposition. Because you’re not diving under waves as you return through the surf zone, your best bet is to swim as much as you can with the broken waves to maintain stability and maximise the pick-up and ride you’ll get from each wave.

If you do find yourself swimming in whitewater, whether on the way out, or on the way back to shore, the key is to be aware of this, and not to worry if it feels like you’re going nowhere fast. Simply relax, maintain a nice streamlined body position, keep your stroke turning over and make the most of the denser water when you do get a chance.

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