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5 ocean swimming techniques that will give you the edge

Are you looking for ‘the edge’ in your ocean swimming?

Maybe it’s just so you can swim as efficiently as possible in the ocean, or maybe it’s so you can beat your friends in your next ocean swim event.

Whatever the reason, here are five ocean swimming techniques that will give you the speed and tactical advantage you’re looking for.

Ocean swimming techniques

1. Getting a lift from swell runners

Swell is rolling unbroken waves moving towards the beach in deep water. As the swell rolls underneath you while swimming you get a natural lift from them towards the shore. To maximise these lifts try to “run’ with the swell as much as possible.

To do this, get a feel for the swell as it comes underneath you and increase your stroke and kick rate and effort to swim with the swell for as long as possible. If you gain half a body length without doing anything, you might get a whole body length, or more, if you use this technique.

2. Sighting behind you

We’ve all learnt to sight forward by now, but sighting backwards is just as important to ocean swimmers.

The most important reason to sight backwards is to know exactly where the waves are at all times. If you know where the waves are, and what stage of breaking they are at, you can be proactive in your action to avoid them (defensive, i.e. turn and dive under) or attack them (offensive, i.e. ride swell runners or position yourself to bodysurf).

There are two techniques to sight backwards.

  • Backward sighting (video) is performed by looking back under your armpit as you take a breath. This is good for quick glimpses while maintaining speed.
  • Backstroke sighting (video) is performed by rolling onto your back and backstroking while lifting your head and looking back over your toes, and to the left and right. Keep your core switched on and increase your kick rate to keep your lower body from sinking. This technique can also be used to catch your breath.

3. Sets and lulls

Sets are groups of waves and lulls are the gap between the sets. The number of waves in a set and the length of the lull are all dependent on the type of swell that’s been generated.

Observe these two factors before you enter the water and use them to time your swim. When leaving the shore, wait for the last wave in the set then start your swim in the lull to avoid waves. Rip currents will also pulse (move faster) after a set of waves has brought more water to the beach.

When returning to shore you can choose the lull to minimise the waves you’ll encounter or you can use the set to catch waves body surfing.

Knowing the average number of waves in a set, and counting them as you dive under them, will also allow you to know when you’re reaching the last wave in the set if you catch a set on the way out and are feeling tired or anxious.

4. Arm reach to stand

This is a simple technique that helps you avoid standing up to soon and being caught too deep in the in-shore where you either have to start swimming again (which will cost you energy getting started again) or push inefficiently through to the shallow water.

Ideally you want to continue swimming to shore until the water depth is no deeper than your waist. From this depth you can efficiently dolphin-dive to the shallow water, wade, then run up the beach.

To use this technique, as you get closer to the shore start to stretch an arm out straight towards the sea-floor every few strokes (an outstretched arm is less than the length of your legs). If you don’t touch the sand, then keep swimming. If you do touch the sand, then you know it’s shallow enough to stand and dolphin-dive.

5. Drafting

Drafting isn’t just for cyclists. In ocean swimming you can save up to 40% of your energy by drafting behind a swimmer.

The best way to draft is to find a swimmer who is slightly faster than you and to position yourself directly behind them, close enough to just miss touching their feet. This will get you into the slipstream they’re creating as they break through the water and it will feel like they are pulling you along.

Drafting will have you swimming faster and using less energy, which can then be used to finish fast and even sprint off the swimmer you were drafting (smart, but cheeky!).

This post was first published in February 2013.

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Andre Slade

Andre is the owner of OceanFit with over 20 years in the swimming education, lifeguarding and coastal safety industry.

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