A few observations to share from my swim in the sea today, wearing my sleeveless, short-legged wetsuit.
I went west along the shore for about 31 minutes, into a wind-driven current, with 50 cm swells and wind chop hitting me from 10 o’clock (to my side and slightly against my head). At the half-way mark I turned around and made it back in 23 minutes- holding about same stroke length and a slightly faster tempo. For every 100 strokes I took heading west, I took only 72 strokes to cover that same distance heading back east. The surface current was that strong.
Normally, the sea is clear to an extraordinary depth. Today, the swells striking the shore had mixed in so much air that the water was a glowing milky blue, obscuring the bottom just 1 meter below. I was left to navigate by keeping an eye on the shore parallel to me, rather than by maintaining a consistent depth of water below.
Most of the time today I was focused on perfecting my balance under the unstable conditions of these waves. They were the most challenging feature of the conditions I faced.
In the pool, I have what other TI coaches observe to be a rather narrow stroke, but they also recognize that I have the refined balance control to do it… in a pool. It is a result of years of old TI and sprint training. For the last two years I have developed both- a narrow stroke pattern for sprinting (where I can afford to hold a bit more tension to gain a leaner body with less drag and more SL), and a wider, more relaxed one for open-water distance swimming. It’s like having two different road-bike frames: one for time-trial, and one for road racing.
Once out in the waves, I know very well why we teach (and why I practice) wide tracks and less extreme body rotation. With waves hitting me in the left side, for instance, even with wider tracks I would often find my body being pushed over my right hand while it was holding the catch. My hand was faithfully holding it position on track but the waves are slamming my body sideways. The wetsuit pushed me higher in the water and left me much more exposed to the surface force of the waves. Higher might be faster- in smooth water- but it is far less stable in rough water.
My TI instincts under these wavy conditions had me focusing intently on my tracks, targets and catch. I felt I was adapting well to these particular waves as the swim progressed. With a higher position in the water and sideways forces acting against my body, I spent much of my time experimenting with my targets to gain better balance stability. I knew I needed to rotate my body to less of an angle, while driving my hands on a wider track and to a deeper target than I might in smooth water conditions. And different wave conditions, from different directions, will likely require me to adjust my targets accordingly.
An immediately de-stabilizing thing to do was to spear my hand to a shallow target- any place above the lowest part of my body line. Driving the hand down to a deeper target gave me a stable drive forward, an anchor against the sideways forces, and a much more effective catch.
On the way back I had the waves hitting the other side of my body, and driving me slightly from behind. Although the waves and surface current provided some significant speed assist, having waves drive from behind is, I feel, more challenging on balance than having waves coming against me head-on. When waves are coming toward me, my head lays down to cut the water while my legs draft easily enough behind. But when waves are driving up behind me they have a tendency to lift my legs first and then (so it feels) try to drive them past my torso, or make me feel like I am being bent backwards. It can be a bit challenging and tiring to keep my body long and straight on its Lazer Lead. So when I reverse direction in wavy conditions it take some time to adjust to a different dynamic upon the body.
This ‘lifting-my-tail’ situation is where stroke control (adjusting stroke length and rate at will) becomes so valuable. When I turn and start swimming with the waves I adjust my SL x SR combination- if holding pace, I usually take on a slightly shorter SL and a slightly faster SR. But then I still have to feel the waves as they approach and micro-adjust my stroke, especially tuning in to the moment I will spear my hand to the target, in order to work with the force of the wave acting upon my body (starting at the feet) and maintain my best balance as it washes past me. In this way I can minimize the sense of lift I feel upon my legs and, in a way, body-surf with each wave.
At the end of my swim I took off the suit and tossed it on shore and jumped back in the waves to test my balance without. Though a wetsuit offered a reduction in surface drag over my skin the deeper body position I have without it was dramatically more stable in the waves. I was cutting through the waves hardly feeling a sideways thrust compared to when I was laying 2 cm higher and subject to their surface force. I had to use far less focus to hold balance and turned that attention instead to streamlining more effectively to cut the water in front. An interesting trade-off.
I am getting closer to being acclimated to 18 C water. Two weeks ago it gave me an ice cream headache when I first jumped in, now it feels refreshing from the beginning and I am beginning to feel almost too hot with the suit on after 10 minutes. That’s an encouraging sign. (What will I do in August when it is 30 C???)
I would like to do an experiment soon to see the difference in stroke count and effort level when I swim a certain distance with the suit on versus without- particularly in wavy, surface-current conditions. It is commonly accepted that wetsuits will make us faster in calm water conditions- (yet the more skilled we are the less advantage a suit will provide). I would like to see what the trade-off is in energy consumption between using the suit and swimming without it in rougher water, since wearing that suit causes me to get beat up a lot more than when I am naked.
One more note- my body lifted up in a wetsuit means my legs are higher, which means I can’t keep my kick underwater. My wife noted the other day when I swam back to her on shore that at first she did not think it was me because I was making noise in my kick. But there is no other way with my wetsuit on. My feet are nearly out of the water it seems. Either no kick, or a have a rhythmic, 2-beat “thump, thump, thump”. If I quiet it down I have a hard time getting my stroke to come from the core and then find my shoulders getting fatigued a lot sooner.
The lift provided by the wetsuit changes the stroke details across the whole body. If you swim with one it will be something you must dial in for yourself, but you are still dealing with the same principles of Balance, then Streamline, then Propulsion. Have fun experimenting and building your skills in your suit if you intend to swim or race in it often.