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Open water swimming is a unique experience. For many, it may feel like the only thing similar between swimming in the open water and a pool is that the water is wet.
There’s no black line to follow and often you’re staring down into a dark bottomless body of water.
All of this and a long list of additional reasons is why we regularly help athletes who struggle with open water nerves overcome anxiety. Most of the time, it’s about learning proper open water technique and building up the athletes confidence. It’s all about guiding them along their journey as they become more experienced and comfortable in this environment.
Below I will walk through a proven progression that has helped a countless number of triathletes overcome open water swim nerves.
This sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I see athletes try to swim for distance for the first time in the open water. It is best to learn proper technique and become comfortable swimming (laps) in a pool first.
One of the hardest things for “adult onset” swimmers to learn is how to breathe properly while swimming. The side effect of incorrect breathing is an “out of breath” feeling. If the athlete cannot do this in the pool, it will likely be exacerbated in the open water. If the athlete is not proficient at this in the pool, it is highly unlikely they’ll will be successful in the open water.
Bottom line – become proficient at swimming laps in the controlled environment that a pool provides first.
Once you are comfortable swimming laps in the pool it’s time to get into the open water. However, before you do, there are a few simple things that will help ensure a positive experience.
If you don’t have a wetsuit, consider getting one. Not only will it keep you warm, but it will help keep you more buoyant and make swimming easier.
Make sure you put you’re wetsuit on properly. The crotch area of the wetsuit should be pulled ALL the way up. The upper half of your wetsuit also needs to be pulled ALL the way up so that it’s not pulling your shoulders down. If you’re wearing a full sleeve wetsuit, you will want to pull your sleeves up (away from your wrist) enough so that your shoulders and arms can move with limited restriction. The best way to do this is to hold your arm straight up in the air above your head and pull the wetsuit sleeve down starting closest to your wrist.
Next, make sure you use an anti chaf agent (i.e. Tri Slide or Body Glide) on potential “hot spots,” namely your neck, possibly your underarm area and any other spots that may cause friction once you start swimming. This will help avoid the infamous “wetsuit hickie” and keep you feeling comfortable.
It’s also helpful to choose the correct pair of goggles. Find a pair that fits your face, doesn’t leak and generally feels comfortable. Aside from this, selecting goggles with the proper lenses is helpful. For example, if it’s sunny wear goggles with mirrored or tinted lenses. If it’s cloudy or rainy, wear goggles with clear or yellow lenses.
Finally, if your goggles tend to fog, an anti fog agent like Foggies can be your best friend. Foggy goggles in the pool is one thing, but when you’re in the open water it can be exponentially more frustrating.
Easing into the water followed by a short warm up will make a HUGE difference in your proceeding swim experience in the open water. The idea is to get wet and become acquainted with and comfortable in the water before you actually swim or race. It sounds stupid but it only takes 5-15 minutes and it will make a HUGE difference.
1. WALK into the water at your own pace.
2. Go in all the way up to your neck or at a depth you can easily submerge your entire body including your face WHEN YOU ARE READY.
3. Take a few “dunks” into the water and exhale when you’re below the surface. Sometimes doing it with a friend, teammate or coach while looking (& waving) makes it slightly more fun and easy to do. Who doesn’t like having a partner in crime?!?! :)
4. Go out a little deeper and begin to tread water. Do this for 1-2 minutes (or as long as you need) and then “sit back in your chair” towards your back and let your feet rises to the surface. Try to become comfortable & relaxed. Your wetsuit should be doing all the work. If you fight the water, you will lose. Make friends with the water (corny I know, but it helps). Let the wetsuit hold you up and lightly wade your arms for extra bouncy and balance. :)
5. Swim (freestyle), with your head down and face in the water for about 10-15 strokes or about 15 yards. Swim as slow as possible. Swimming EXTRA slow will help control your nerves & heart rate thus helping build comfort in the water. Do this for about 2-6 passes of ~15 yards each or until you’re ready to begin swimming for a longer duration.
Now you’re ready to swim a little longer.
Following the progression above, you should be mentally and physically primed to begin swimming in the open water.
You may not be able to put your head down and swim for 5, 10, or 15+ minutes straight away and THAT’S OK!
The more experience and the more often (frequency) you can get in the open water to practice, the more COMFORTABLE & CONFIDENT you will become. It help to have a swim buddy for confidence AND safety (obviously)! You can also get a swim buoy if it makes you feel better.
If you have a bad experience, do your best to get back in the water as soon as possible. Each time will get better and better. Understand, it takes a different amount of time for everyone so don’t compare yourself to others.
Start by trying to swim for 1 minute (or :30 sec) without stopping and then increase from there. If available, you can find a dock or buoy near by to swim to. The latter gives you a more tangible goal to achieve rather than an ambiguous time target (i.e. 1 minute… how do you really know it’s been 1 minute when you’re swimming?!?).
If you HATE looking down into the dark water (like I did when I started), close your eyes when your face is in the water. This will help ease your nerves.
Regardless of your initial time or distance goals as suggested above, it is very important to SWIM SLOW. How slow? Go “slow” and than go a bit slower. This will help keep your heart rate as low as possible, keep your nerves at bay and allow you to breathe easier.
by Coach Chris Kaplanis
Once you are comfortable swimming laps in the pool, swimming in the open water is all about CONFIDENCE. Sure, learning how to “sight” properly will help make sure you’re swimming straight, but that can come later. For now, it’s important to build up your confidence.
I’m often asked, “what should I think about while I swim?” The answer is, “it depends” because each athlete is different. I will offer suggestions below, but regardless of what you think about it is important to have a positive attitude and maintain positive thoughts throughout this entire process.
Suggestions.: “What Should I Think About?”
Regardless of what you end up thinking about, it’s important to celebrate and remember each and every positive experience along the way. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant it may seem.
The more you swim and the more positive experiences you sock away in the back of your head, the more “ammunition” you will be able to draw on when the bad (uncomfortable) thoughts try take control of you. These funny thoughts will likely never go away, but as you compile your stash of ammunition you’ll be able to fend them off and stay in control.
“RTA Athlete Overcomes Open Water Swim Struggles”
After you feel comfortable swimming in the open water by yourself (or with a friend or two), you’ll want to become comfortable swimming with many others around you… like a race.
This is a topic for another day, but it’s the next piece to the puzzle.
For now, practice what I described above and feel free to leave comments or questions below.
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