Surfing to Quell Your Fear of Open Water Swimming

For many triathletes, an open water swim in the ocean can seem downright scary. Mother Nature can feel cruel, the ocean relentless and, let's face it, humans just aren't in their element out there. No matter how hardcore and regimented your training is, if you aren't ocean savvy—come race day—you may find yourself wanting to turn tail and run away as soon as you hit the sand.

"You've been going to the pool, it's really nice and relaxing, you can see the black line at the bottom," explains Justin Moser, an avid triathlete who is currently training for his first Ironman. "Then you get in the ocean and all of a sudden it's hard to spot where you're trying to get to, you can't see the bottom, you're basically blind, disoriented, you've swallowed water because of the waves so your breathing is off, you're hitting things like kelp thinking it could be a shark—you've been going to the pool three days a week for six months and now you feel like you've never swam before."

For those that live close to the beach, Moser suggests incorporating surfing into rest days, as an off-season activity or just to mix it up a bit. According to him, here's how surfing (and learning how to surf) will help ease you into open-water swimming and better swim training sessions:

More: Pop Up Better When Surfing 

You'll Acclimate Yourself to the Water

Not only do you have the safety and security of a personal floatation device—your board—to introduce you to what can be a very choppy surface and sizeable waves, but surfing is a way to familiarize oneself to the temperature, changing moods and general eeriness of the ocean.

When you aren't already used to open water, "you're exposed to the elements and the cold water can take your breath away, your heart rises and you start to freak out," Moser admits.

On top of all that, immersing yourself in murky water where you can barely see 5 inches below the surface isn't everyone's cup of tea and can be downright scary. Surfing can serve as a fun way of conquering that sensation.

It May Enhance Your Training Sessions

Moser trains with a fellow triathlete friend who grew up in Sydney. Because surfing is practically Australia's national sport, he grew up riding those Southern Hemisphere waves. According to Moser, swimming with a pull buoy simulates the floatation of a wetsuit or surfboard.

"When we swim with a pull buoy, he flies. Growing up surfing, he's just got that technique down," Moser says. 

You'll Learn to Read the Ocean

There's arguably no other sport in which you have to read ocean patterns, constantly changing variables, weather and "roll with the punches" more than an ocean sport. With surfing, in particular, you'll learn to read swells, the way waves break, where rip currents are (sometimes they'll sweep you right out past the breaking waves, eliminating some of your work) and which way the current is moving on any particular day. You'll get used to swimming out against the waves and in with the waves.

It Strengthens the Same Muscles

While you aren't using your legs in the exact same way, you are strengthening the same upperbody and core muscles when you're surfing. For that reason, Moser suggests not only using surfing in the offseason but ialso incorporating the activity into your life at any time, whether you go down to the beach and surf for half an hour and then swim for half an hour.

You'll Learn to Let Go

As a triathlete, it's hard not to be a little?OCD, right? And even though it works in your favor, most of the time, it could do you some good to learn to go with the flow a little bit. You can't control everything and, if surfing teaches you anything, it's how to take everything as it comes at any given second. Every wave is different, all the different variables constantly change and you've got to be ultra aware and prepared at all times. "As triathletes, we do have a schedule to follow," says Moser. "But being out in the open water in any capacity helps."

Active logo

Register for a surfing lesson.

About the Author

Christina Scannapiego

Christina Scannapiego is the Outdoors editor for She?loves yoga?and is fanatical about getting her?endorphins pumping outside.
Christina Scannapiego is the Outdoors editor for She?loves yoga?and is fanatical about getting her?endorphins pumping outside.

Discuss This Article