Tame your Open Water Swim Fear

a triathlete with his swam cap on
January 25, 2017

D3 Staff


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As race day approaches, even seasoned athletes can be plagued by nervousness and self-doubt. Suddenly, positive thoughts can turn negative, and concerns about preparation start to surface. This shift in mindset, from confidence to insecurity, is a common experience among competitors. Questions like "How do I improve my speed and endurance?" may give way to anxieties like "What if I panic in the water? How do I handle it?" This fear of open water swimming, especially for novice or weaker swimmers, is a significant challenge in triathlon. Drawing from my experience as both a pool and open water swimmer, I aim to offer some practical tips for overcoming these fears.

Open water swimming, often in deep, murky waters, can be intimidating, particularly for those unaccustomed to it. I first encountered the panic associated with open water swimming during the London Triathlon in 2000. Despite being a strong pool swimmer, my father experienced insecurities and doubts as he faced the open river water. The overwhelming sight of the swim course and the unexpected challenges posed by the environment triggered a wave of panic. He grappled with negative thoughts and fears, from the cold and exhaustion to the unfamiliar sensations of buoyancy and visibility. These external factors compounded to create a profound sense of dread and anxiety. However, with strategies to calm himself and regain composure, he persevered and completed the swim.

As someone who grew up swimming competitively in pools, I also felt the unease of transitioning to open water. The unfamiliar environment, with its murky depths and unpredictable conditions, stirred unexpected fears. This experience has stayed with me, prompting me to reflect on the psychological aspects of open water swimming.

It's essential to recognize that even the most confident athletes can experience bouts of negativity and anxiety, particularly in high-pressure situations. Training the mind to cope with these challenges is just as crucial as physical preparation. Here are some strategies to help manage open water swim fears:

1. **Regular Swim Training:** Consistent swim training builds confidence and ensures you're physically capable of completing the race distance.

2. **Open Water Practice:** Familiarize yourself with open water swimming by practicing in similar environments before race day.

3. **Be Prepared to Adapt:** Acknowledge and address your fears rather than ignoring them. Practice techniques like floating on your back or switching to breaststroke if needed.

4. **Start at the Back:** Position yourself away from the main pack during the swim start to reduce stress and avoid potential collisions.

5. **Practice with Others:** Simulate race conditions by swimming alongside friends in the pool, experiencing physical contact and adapting your stroke accordingly.

6. **Check Equipment:** Ensure your goggles are in good condition and bring spares to prevent last-minute equipment failures.

7. **Focus on Technique:** Concentrate on your stroke, breathing, and swimming in a straight line to minimize distractions and maintain calmness.

Remember, fear is often a product of overthinking and can be managed by focusing on the present moment. By preparing both physically and mentally, you can approach race day with confidence and resilience. Above all, embrace the experience and enjoy the journey towards achieving your goals.

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