How to Prepare for Nausea, Vomiting and Motion Sickness in Open Water Swimming

How to Prepare for Nausea, Vomiting and Motion Sickness in Open Water Swimming

Building a Strong Constitution and Preparing for Uneasiness in the Open Water

When there is heavy surface chop, wind, whitecaps, and waves in open bodies of water, many swimmers – especially those marathon and channel swimmers who swim for hours on end – can end up of getting queasy and start vomiting in the water. How can you prevent that from happening?

Breathing

The first and best countermeasure is to learn how to efficiently breathe in surface chop and turbulence without swallowing. This is much easier said than done, but it requires hours and hours of training in swirling, turgid water. Pick a windy day – usually in the afternoons when the winds traditionally pick up – and swim into the water, head towards the whitecaps so you are purposefully placing yourself in difficult-to-breathe conditions.

It will be difficult in the beginning to not swallow water when you breathe. But, gradually over time and with many hours of practice, you will begin to get the feel of the dynamic nature of turbulent waters. There is a rhythm that you can sense in rough water conditions. Even with the winds howling and the waves coming from all over the place, you can start to orchestrate your breathing by slightly moving your chin forwards or backwards, or by turning your head slightly delayed in your arm stroke. You will have to learn how to bilateral breathe – that is, breathing on both your left and right sides – in order to avoid all the water that can splash up and enter your open mouth.

You can start by learning how to efficiently bilateral breathe in a pool. Swim 100 meters breathing only to the left, then another 100 meters breathing only to the right, then another 200 meters alternatively breathing first to the left and then to the right, then another distance where you can mix up your breathing pattern. For example, breathe 4 times to the left, and then 4 times to the right. After you get accustomed to breathing on both sides, you are ready to do the same in the open water.

Strong Core

Secondly, you can start a dryland training program when you develop strong(er) abdominal and lower back muscles. This will allow you to maintain a more streamlined body position. You can to be able to swim with a minimal curvature in your lower back, with your legs as straight as possible and your body rotating on its center core when you breathe to the right and left. This will also help reduce the amount of water that you accidentally swallow in rough water conditions.

Food and Hydration

Thirdly, never experiment on a new food or different hydration on race/swim day. Only experiment on new food or different hydration during training – and lock in your preferred and optimal food and hydration long before your race / swim day. If you train with a cherry-flavored drink, and it suits you well, then go with that flavor. Do not switch to lemon-flavored or chocolate when it counts. If you train with gel packs or chocolate chip cookies, then stick with that food plan. Just because another swimmer recommends something that works for them, does not mean it will also work with with you.

Test a variety of foods, drinks, flavors and amounts in training – and then go with that plan on race / swim day.

Even some food or drink that works in cold water may need to be changed if you swim in warm water. The same is true with salt water and fresh water. If you train all the time in freshwater lakes and lidos, then expect the taste of your foods and drinks will be different if you swim in a saltwater location.

Motion Sickness

A sick feeling or vomiting can occur because of you swim through heavy surf, severe surface chop, or gently rolling ocean swells causing motion sickness (seasickness). You may be one of those few people who are prone to this and you may simply have to learn to deal with it – or you may overcome it with time. Frankly, this is a difficult obstacle to overcome.

Marine Life

Sometimes, the venom of stinging jellyfish can lead to an upset stomach. Be prepared. Vomiting can actually make you feel better in some cases.

Sickness

Feeling uneasy or vomiting may also be caused by – quite simply – a touch of flu or a cold or some other medical problem. This has cost even very experienced swimmers to be caught off guard. If you feel ill in any way or have any kind of medical condition that flares up in the days before or on race / swim morning, then expect that your performance may not be optimal and you may be in for some unexpected issues. This is also one of those inevitable occurences in the open water that are hard to overcome.

Specialized Training

If you have experienced an upset stomach or vomiting during their open water swim, and it is not due to swallowing water, then you may think about a specialized type of training.

NOTE: This is very specialized training that is only recommended for the most hard-core and fanatically passionate open water swimmer. Do not attempt unless you are extremely confident in your abilities or committed to improve. Only proceed with the consent of your coach, physician, or parents.

This feeling of seasickness or queasiness can lead to severe discomfort in the water, but many swimmers can get through this illness with a steely mental focus and a mindset that their pain will only be temporary.

Occasionally, an upset stomach is too much for even the most hardy open water swimmer to handle. Their stomach tightens up, they cannot keep food or drink down, and their repeated vomiting leads to dehydration or hallucinations, and ultimately, to failure. Months or years of training and expectations are dashed– not because of the distance or water temperature, but because of an upset stomach.

Just as open water swimmers (should) prepare for every single condition and situation for their swims, whether it is the water temperature, marine life (e.g., stinging jellyfish), high-salt content of the ocean, or rough windy conditions, the World Open Water Swimming Association recommends that swimmers prepare themselves for the possibility of an upset stomach.

You can prepare yourself for the unlikely scenario where you feel terrible in the water, perhaps even vomiting. With experience, you will learn to fight through the discomfort and carry on. It is never pleasant and it is a profound test of one’s commitment to the sport, but learning how to overcome these sensations during training will certainly prepare you for plain old bad luck and unexpected conditions on race / swim day.

As a reminder, the following is not recommended for all swimmers. It is only an example of what a few highly motivated (or crazy) open water swimmers can do to prepare themselves to be ready for an upset stomach in the middle of a marathon swim or channel crossing:

Step 1:
Eat a very large, greasy meal of eggs, bacon, ham, fried potatoes and other kinds of foods. Remember to stuff yourself before eating in the water.

Step 2:
Swim parallel to the shore in the surf zone (or in windy whitewater conditions) so you are constantly going up and down the ocean swells and being battered left and right by the whitewash and waves.

Step 3:
If nothing bothers you, then great. You are ready for nearly everything. On the other hand If you start to get an upset stomach, then let it all out and vomit. Hydrate as you can and continue. Or continue for as long as you can do so safely. It will not be pleasant, but your confidence for race / swim day will soar after dealing with this type of scenario in practice.