If you've been patiently refining your stroke technique in the pool it can be quite a shock to turn up at an open water race or triathlon and find sizable chop, rolling swells or even breaking waves. Swimming in these conditions is really quite challenging as the motion of the water moves you around and disturbs your stroke rhythm.
The key thing to understand is that any swimmer of any level finds these conditions tough and everyone is slower than they would be in flat calm water. That's just how it is. The important thing is how well you cope and from a purely competitive sense, how little you slow down relative to other swimmers.
Performing well in these conditions is about focusing on stroke rhythm at the perceived expense of smoothness and stroke length. A long slow stroke style becomes much less efficient in rough water because the water's movement stalls you in the gap between strokes.
By shortening your stroke slightly and focusing on rhythm, you'll punch through waves and chop much more effectively. What's more, the more continuous stroke pattern will stabilise you and you'll feel much more in control.
Letting That Smooth Stroke Go
When you're in the midst of a rough open water swim, switch your thinking from "Oh god, this is such a struggle" to "OK, now I'm going to focus on rhythm and power through this". Think about getting into your stroke a little quicker at the front, don't force it but remove any delay there and focus on lifting your rhythm. It may feel a little scrappy at first but that's OK, if you were watching from the outside it wouldn't look anywhere near as hurried as it initially feels.
Try a simple mantra of "1-2-breathe-1-2-breathe..." where the 1 and 2 are on non-breathing strokes. This will turn your mind away from everything around you and keep it on the important things, your stroke rhythm and your breathing. Everything else will take care of itself!
If you really struggle with anxiety in these conditions (every swimmer does to a greater or lesser extent) then keep focusing on your exhalation into the water over and above everything else. Anxiety makes you want to hold your breath and when swimming this can easily bring on a full blown panic attack. Try the mantra "bubble-bubble-breath" to make sure you're exhaling smoothly whenever your face is in the water. You should find your nerves settle down quickly after a few minutes.
Excelling In Open Water
Of course to perform really well in open water you actually want to swim as close as possible to other swimmers to conserve energy or be towed along by a much faster swimmer than yourself. Such is the benefit of drafting that really you should never be looking to swim in still water! Even in an otherwise flat lake, the wake from other swimmers in close proximity is enough to recreate those disturbed water conditions which calls for that faster stroke rate style.
If you watch the elite wave at a triathlon or open water swim you'll notice that every swimmer uses this shorter faster stroke style for this reason, even in an otherwise flat calm lake. Increases as small as 3-5 strokes per minute over your normal pool rhythm can make all the difference.
It's important to appreciate that by lifting your stroke rate, we're not looking to swim harder. Just like spinning a smaller gear on the bike, each stroke takes less effort but you're taking more of them. This might appear contrary to what most people are led to be an efficient freestyle stroke but in the open water environment it's essential for best performance.
Swimming with more stroke rhythm isn't an advanced level skill, any swimmer can do it. But let's not over-think this, get out there and try it, it really does work!