Tame your Open Water Swim Fear

January 25, 2017

D3 Staff


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As race day looms near, nervous feelings can provoke insecure thoughts in even the most experienced athletes. All of a sudden they begin to question their preparation for the big day. It becomes apparent during this period that a competitors mindset can change from a place of positivity to a place of negativity almost instantly. Questions such as “How do I get leaner and faster” can become “What if I panic in the water…how do I get back to shore?” The latter question in my experience as a coach and professional triathlete, is the most commonly asked, fear driven question I hear from the beginner triathletes and even from some of the more experienced triathletes.

This is a subject which most definitely deserves a lot more attention and this article will provide you with some handy tips towards coping with open water swim fear.

Martina Austria 2013Triathlon starts with swimming, usually in deep, dark, murky waters and quite often in the ocean where all kinds of creatures lurk. This is an intimidating experience for almost everyone that isn’t familiar with open water swimming – especially the novice or weaker swimmers. I am addressing this topic with my experience as a pool swimmer and an open water swimmer. My intention is to help others overcome their fears within this aspect of triathlon.

The panic some people feel during an open water swim first came to my attention in the year 2000 at the London Triathlon. Joined by my father and sister, we decided to race our first open water triathlon race. My Dad is a strong and capable pool swimmer and has the confidence and ability to match his skills. However, as he approached the swim area in the Docklands, insecurities began to creep into his thoughts and he started to question his preparation for this swim. All of a sudden the 750 meter loop looked huge in the open river water.

After I finished my race I made my way back over to the run course to make sure he’d made it through the swim and bike. To be honest I was relieved to see him running around towards the finish chute. After he crossed the line I asked him how the race went. His reply was very positive although it included a whole list of concerns he experienced during the swim. He mentioned how he started to feel a little worried when a few hundred people around him took off instantaneously as the gun fired. It was an overwhelming experience. The panic set in a little more as he reached the half way point and wondered if he could even finish the swim at all with the extreme, unexpected cold and exhaustion he felt. It then dawned on him, what if he couldn’t make it back? There’s no pool side to grab onto and no pool floor to stand on. All of a sudden he struggled to even do freestyle and his mental capacity was now being put to the test.

Once these negative thoughts ran through his mind, the concerns he felt turned into panic. The fear he started to experience progressed exponentially to an almost debilitating degree. He became acutely aware of things he hadn’t even thought about before – his buoyancy in the water was different. He couldn’t see his hands or anything else through this thick green “liquid”. He started to feel as though the density of the Thames water was pulling him down to the depths. The combination of this and the bright piercing sun reflecting off the surface made him feel blinded. His fingers and toes got colder and colder the longer he was in there, and the smell of the water made him feel sick. These sudden external influences combined had a profound and devastating effect on his mindset. Fortunately this fear didn’t last too long as he knew exactly what to do to relax, calm himself, regain composure and battle on. In the end he finished up the swim breast stroking his way home. He did mention however that he did feel somewhat comforted by the kayak lifeguards floating nearby and the extra buoyancy that the wetsuit he wore provided.

To be honest, I can’t say I was surprised to hear him express his concerns throughout the swim as even though I grew up as a national pool swimmer, I never really swam in the ocean or in the open water before this race. Although I never admitted it at the time (‘cos I’m way too cool) I felt somewhat panicked and unsure of my swimming prowess in those waters as well.

11451_10103309764971400_1814756881_nI’m a strong, confident swimmer and the negative thoughts that crept up on me in the open, murky waters of the Thames kind of took me by surprise, which is why the memory if this has stayed with me all these years. It’s also why whenever anyone asks me a question regarding safety in the open water swim, I can sympathize with them from experience. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about.

What some athletes don’t realize is that no matter how confident you feel, everyone, and I mean everyone, battles with mindset negativity at some point, and it usually shows up at the most inconvenient times. Even the pro athletes at the highest level of performance struggle tremendously with negative mind sets. Which is why the classic “panic training” the week leading into the race has ruined countless performances around the world since competition began. However, there are some techniques that can help you to remain calm and cope with any fears should they arise.

As follows are a few helpful hints towards combating the psychological elements that you might face during a competitive, open water swim. These are attributes I follow myself in order to arrive on race day as physically and mentally prepared as possible for what might lie ahead.

1) Regular swim training. This might sound obvious to you, but the amount of first time triathletes that have said to me “Oh it’s ok, I used to swim when I was a kid, I’ll be fine, I can swim,” would astound you. Swim train at least 2x a week so you can comfortably complete the distance required in the race. This will prove to yourself that you are absolutely physically capable of completing the distance. This has a huge, positive impact on your confidence.

2) You must swim in an open water environment preferably a few times before your race. Athletes that are nervous of the open water should not swim “out” to the middle of the depths, but swim alongside the shore line/land area waist deep to improve their confidence in the water before they venture out.

3) Don’t be too proud. By this I mean, don’t be too proud to admit that you’re intimidated by the open water. Be prepared to tackle this problem with a back up plan. Practice in the pool and in the open water. Practice turning over and floating on your back with a breaststroke or flutter kick. This is the easiest and most sure way of securing your safety if you get into real trouble. By doing this you’ll be able to breathe easily and calm yourself effectively. Practicing this before hand allows you to feel absolutely confident that if you should get hit in rough swims or choke on the water you have a fool proof technique to help you recover and stay in control. This also eliminates the biggest fear from your list…drowning. Most people find that even by changing their stroke momentarily from freestyle to breaststroke that it’s sufficient enough to regain their composure.

4) Start outside of the main pack, to the right/left or at the very back. A professional or experienced triathlete can position themselves within the pack. This enables them to save energy by swimming in other athletes’ drag. Beginners, however, will find this situation rough, confusing and very scary. This is where most novice athletes will experience a panic situation, especially if swimmers behind them start to catch and swim over the top of them. Swimming at the back is safer and will allow you to follow the swimmers ahead instead of trying to sight buoys and land objects in the distance.

5) You can practice open water style swimming at the pool with a few friends. If you have an empty lane available, practice swimming side by side, and behind each other to experience what it’s like to endure some kind of physical contact as you swim. You might find your stroke is massively affected by this interference. Trying this out in training prepares you mentally and physically for race day and allows you the opportunity to change and adapt if necessary.

6) Check and swim with your goggles before race day. Snapped elastic or broken nose pieces that occur five minutes before the swim start can rattle even the toughest mindsets. Come prepared with two pairs of goggles ready to go. Clean and in good working order already fitted and adjusted to your comfort.

7) Try not to worry about your distant surroundings too much. It might sound strange, but I compare it to someone that’s afraid of heights. If they’re up high and they’re aware of this, they panic. If you blind folded their eyes, took them up to the same height without them knowing – they would be oblivious to the height and would remain as calm as if they were on land. Fear is all in the mind set and can be controlled by whatever you focus on. Same thing here. Focus on your body, your pull, your kick, your breathing, swimming in a straight line. The moment you focus on being out in the middle of a deep water lake, the more you run the risk of fear creeping up on you. Set a sight, focus on it and swim…don’t over think it.

Just remember, you are always moving forward even though it doesn’t feel like it. You might feel slow and the finish might seem like an eternity away…but you will get there. Keep on moving.

Remember to enjoy the experience!

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