Here on the Mediterranean Coast off Antalya I have a mild selection of adverse open-water conditions – the coldest the sea gets, in February, is 16 C. By May it is up to 20 C, and by mid-August up to 29 C. The afternoon swells and waves, except during a storm, are maybe 1 meters at most. From sunrise to 10 am it is calm. I can usually see the bottom at 30m or more- seeing down that deep is a pleasure for some swimmers, an anxiety for others. No large fish other than sea turtles and sting rays and little jellyfish yet those rare near shore.
The 22 C (72 F) water temp right now is heaven for distance swimming. Today, I decided to embrace the late morning waves and have fun dealing with their abuse in bite-size chunks.
Our family made our annual application for our residence permit first thing this morning so I couldn’t head down to the smooth sea for a swim earlier. Afterward we celebrated at the beach. It was 10 am by this time (a record for how quickly and smoothly our application transpired) and the offshore breeze was kicking up a short-spaced stack of waves around a 2/3 meter in amplitude, heading straight into shore. I was under-slept and feeling lazy in the sun – it was so tempting to just lay down for a nap under the umbrella. But I decided even a short swim is better than no swim. Actually, I had anticipated the waves and already had a plan in mind for these.
Not wanting to swim off for an hour or more and leave my family I instead wanted to do some short repeat work so they could see me come back every few minutes and say hi. I am usually swimming kilometers up and down along the coast and so I get more practice swimming with swells and waves hitting me on the flank, rocking me sideways. Today I decided to cut straight out 100 meters into those oncoming waves and straight back for 12x 200m repeats.
I know my Stroke Length by feel pretty well after years of keeping tabs on SPL in the pool and imprinting a certain range – but swimming with waves or current can mess perception up. The effect of swimming against waves is like swimming in a really rough Endless Pool I suppose- you are effectively taking long strokes, but the whole mass of water coming at you is reducing your actual progress forward- your body doesn’t know the difference, but your brain does! With this in mind, I concentrated on counting my strokes out against the waves, and then back, and get a decent estimate of my actual distance.
80 strokes in smooth water at certain tempos is around 100 meters for me. So I counted 100 strokes out, and needed 87-95 to get back depending on how well I navigated the path. The wind-driven waves being so tightly packed sloshed me around from behind as much as from ahead so it was slower swimming either direction (maybe about 1.45 per 100+ meters).
Now I was sloshed around indeed, but I was thrilled at my ability to deal with it eagerly. I want to share how specific Total Immersion skills gave me greater ability to manage these waves that would wipe out a swimmer without them.
ADJUSTING SL AND TEMPO
Because of training with precise SPL and Tempo work in the pool, and adjusting SL and Tempo combinations for different situations, I have the ability to lengthen my stroke and slow down my tempo as I swam into the waves to reduce their impact while maintaining speed. As any surfer knows (from my former Oregon coast surfing days) ducking under the waves is much easier than swimming over them- so in swimming, spending more time under the surface actively streamlining forward is more productive than thrashing the arms around faster above it- so I made an intellegent trade-off. However, this is often the opposite reaction of less-experienced open-water swimmers who try to swim ‘harder’ through the waves to preserve that sense of tempo-they try to fight the chop on top, but sacrifice enormous SL, and therefore lose speed and energy, to do it. The skill for adjusting my SL and lengthening my body, keeping my head low (looking straight down, not forward) has the effect of letting the water wash over me, rather than smacking into the parts of my body being presented to the waves. Less surface time, while extending cutting hand in front, allows me to get far more stroke length out of each catch.
So, in a race situation, while the pack is swimming into the waves, most are going to thrash hard to hold their stroke rate (because that is all they have trained for), hoping they can hold speed and position. But the waves are annihilating their stroke length. A swimmer with these SL x Tempo control skills can adjust and actually keep effort level much lower during these conditions while maintaining race position, then when the pack turns the buoy and most are then trying to recover, it provides an opportunity for this swimmer to break away.
There is another great benefit to the ‘slow’ Skate work we do in TI (e.g. “Slide and Glide”) that some critics like to pick on- my balance is so well developed from this ‘slow work’ that in these inconsistently timed head-on waves, I can adjust any single stroke, changing the speed of some part of the recovery arm to time its entry with the wave I can feel building in front of me. Because I am balanced at all times, I do not have to keep my arms going constantly in order to keep my body aligned or prevent rolling or sinking even as I am battered around by waves. I am holding it all together from the core muscles in my body, not the arms and legs. By this ability to ‘swim slow’ I am freed up to adjust my stroke rhythm to the waves, whether head-on or tail-on, so I can minimize their impact, and maximize my thrust on each stroke.
Another essential OW skill is bi-lateral breathing. Learning to breath on both sides comfortably, learning to keep the Lazer Lead point ahead (the spine straight from tail to crown, head looking down, not tilted up at an angle), learning to breath earlier in the stroke, and developing breath control is essential to staying well-oxygenated and calm.
At any given turn to breathe I could not tell when I would find enough dry space to get a good gulp- so I would turn, and take full, partial or no breath depending on what I found. The waves would break on my exposed body randomly so I would even be mid-inhale and then get a plug of salt-water in my mouth. Even with good breathing technique, in wavy open-water it’s something we just have to get used to and develop quick reflexes for. Because of training with optimal SL and Tempo, up to anaerobic threshold I have sufficient oxygen in one breath every 5 strokes, yet I still breathe every 3rd stroke which provides more than enough breathing opportunities (note: since breathing is connected to tempo, faster tempos give you more frequent breathing opportunities). As long as the head is kept low in the water and I do not break the long, Lazer Lead plane of my body cutting through the water, I can even take breaths every 2 strokes if needed without disrupting my flow. Often in rough water we must breathe to one side, and more often than normal when we’re in higher exertion. So developing smooth, low-profile, yet flexible breathing patterns is a critical skill for comfort in OW.
TI teaches what is called “Swing Switch” and “Wide Tracks”. When my recovery arm comes around the elbow is leading the way, the forearm and hand trailing behind like a dangling paint brush (this does diminishes as my tempo increases to sprint speeds). The elbow, synced carefully with the rotation of my torso, is swinging in what is technically referred to as the ‘scapular plane’ which means the upper arm and elbow are staying in the plane along my side, not jutting behind my back, nor coming in front of my chest- this is the path of least resistance and best joint support (i.e. least risky to the shoulder joint). To recognize this scapular plane, just stand up and put your elbow to your side, then swing the elbow up directing out from the side of your body until it reaches ear height. That’s the TI recovery arm (elbow, actually) path.
This wide elbow swing provides us the chance to turn off many shoulder muscles for a quick rest, and reduces how much that heavy arms has to push back up against gravity. This preserves energy and protects balance.
The forearm and hand are ‘lazy’, hanging there like a marionette (as Terry calls it). The elbow is leading the way, almost dragging the forearm forward, the fingers almost skimming the surface. This is very distinct in Shinji’s video and any other well-developed TI swimmer. It’s not just an artistic touch- out in the waves (or a crowded pool), this dangling forearm can get smacked by the waves but yields to them so the recovery arm is not hindered in moving forward. This is another huge advantage for energy preservation and protecting balance. I experienced its value constantly today.
ACTIVE STREAMLINING – EARLY HAND ENTRY
As I read the opinions of other programs on technique I know this is a controversial point (or insignificant to some), but I’m convinced of its value by practice and by the laws of hydrodynamics. It made a huge difference swimming against the waves today.The hand and arm must enter the water at the head and extend forward UNDER water, not over it.
The recovery elbow swings forward, and brings the hand to be poised above the surface beside the ear- this is the point where most swimmers continue on and reach that hand as far forward OVER the surface of the water, then push down to get their hand down to catch position. But in TI, at about the ear (or forehead) is where the hand is speared into the water and then extended forward UNDER the water, directly to the perfect catch position. What this does, in terms of hydrophysics, is lengthen the vessel underwater where it counts- that hand is cutting the water in front of the ‘boat’ while the other hand is beginning the catch. And now the swimmer is going to get MORE thrust forward out of their catch because they are, at the exact same time, reducing water resistance in front- one arm holding position in the water (the catch) while the rest of the body is sliding past it following all that thrust projecting through the spearing front arm. From the view of physics force is not being pushed back against water, its being transferred FORWARD through the body to the tip of that hand spearing forward underwater, lengthening and narrowing the body! When the timing is right, and the tempo well-matched to SL, there is no ‘dead spot’ in the stroke as some critics fear. I can clearly see this skill applied in Phelps’ 200m world record swim (watch the above view, particularly how his arm extends even further in front after it pierces the water, body line lengthening more and more before he starts the catch**).
Another way to look at it, is that the front hand spearing forward is ‘parting’ water molecules so the swimmer actually slips through the water with less resistance- it’s a subtle but important shift in mindset: we’re not pushing water back behind us, we’re thrusting a knife forward. Focus on the extension forward as much if not more than you focus on the catch and pull and you might be amazed at the difference in your results. But this effect can only happen if the hand is entering the water at the head, not slapping down on the water out in front. This is ACTIVE STREAMLINING. This skill and timing is one of the critical differences between the best swimmers and the runner-ups.
I also had some practice navigating my way directly out toward the waves, by noticing the patterns in the sand and a few sublte rock features several meters down. This is obviously not an option in any sort of murky water. But it was easy to FEEL when I turned even a point away from the waves- their force would start driving me sideways just like it would a sail boat.
And coming back I had the waves scooping my legs up and shoving me face-down the front of these little waves. My rigid core was tested more by tail-on waves than by head-on. As I rotated to breath I would hold my mouth closed and instead swing my goggles around just at the surface to catch a glimpse of where my family’s big bright yellow beach umbrella was positioned and then adjust my course on that. I would check for the familiar patterns in the sand to see if the confirmed my path, and I would feel how the waves were scooping me from behind, whether I was keeping them dead-astern or they were starting to turn me.
It was actually fun! I took a few swallows of salt water but it was all in a days swim. And doing it in small repeats near shore like this was a perfect way to address a tough OW feature while allowing me to keep in control of the experience. It’s not fun to mis-calculate the fuel tank and end up a couple choppy kilometers away from the water bottle and snack pack- but that too can be a good learning experience.
**Note: I have observed in my own extensive testing and watching other swimmers that as tempo increases to sprint levels, the hand entry point will extend a bit further in front, but there is still a prominant extension and lengthening of the body happening under water before the catch. In order to preserve as long a stroke as possible at high tempos, a swimmer must perfect timing to maintain front-quadrant rhythm- the arms do not spin at fixed pace like a bicycle crank- they cycle at a variable rate. The best part of the stroke is the front half- which is exactly what less experienced swimmers most readily sacrifice in order to increase tempo. These top swimmers prove the value of front quadrant swimming.