I’m not necessarily an expert on the topic (or anything on here for that matter), and once again I’d like to throw out a disclaimer that these are only my thoughts and opinions on what I’ve learned and what works for me personally.

But I do love a good rough water swim. It’s a great cardio workout and takes some real skills, instead of just needing to be fast and strong.

So here are my thoughts on a few things that help me tackle those rough days.

Get Down

Get under those waves. Stay down until the pull from them is really gone. Down deeper than you think for longer than you think. And don’t forget to kick while you’re down there. You may as well get a bit of forward momentum while you’re getting out of the way of the backward momentum from the waves. You can judge how long to stay down from the feel (the backwards tugging), the sound (that whooshing of the white water going over the top of you), and in some types of wather you can see the changes in light diffusion as the top of the wave passes over. So don’t forget to use more than just your judgement from the size and speed of the wave before you ducked under.

Every Stroke Counts

If you’re not used to swimming in rougher conditions, it can feel like hard work. You get down and under a couple of waves and it’s exhausting. There’s a break between sets, so you stop to catch your breath. It’s the most natural thing to do, but unfortunately the absolute wrong thing to do as well. You actually need to use those precious breaks between waves to gain ground. The harder you swim, even if you only get in a couple of good strokes before needing to duck again, the more ground (water?) you gain, and the sooner you get out the back, behind the big breakers. Once you’re there you can recover (active recovery, of course), slow down a touch and catch your breath.


Another counterintuitive thing you need to do, is learn to exhale when you’re diving under. Despite what you may feel, you can actually stay under the water a lot longer than you think. Key to not panicking, is learning to exhale instead of holding your breath. Seems when you hold your breath the carbon dioxide starts to build up, and that is the cause of the panicky feelings that you’re running out of air. Just relax, exhale as normal, and have faith that even big waves pass in a matter of seconds. You’ll be back to the surface in no time.

Expect to never be salt-deficient

No matter how much practice you have, occasionally you’re going to get a mouthful of salt water. Get used to it. Try not to swallow. But if you do, again, don’t panic. You may feel like coughing or gagging, but if you relax and concentrate, you can usually breath your way through it.

Learn to look fast and breathe fast

If the waves are coming thick and fast without much space between them, you may need to get up, scope out, and only manage half a breath before diving down again. A couple of times in a row. The quicker you take stock of what’s in front of you when you break the surface and get air into your lungs, the less the chance of catching a wave full in the face, getting swept back, or ending up with a solid salty drink.

Work with it. don’t fight it

Learn to body surf. That way, for every wave you fight on the way out, you can catch a lift with on your way back into the shore. Plus it’s awesome.