For many, the swim is the bug-a-boo of the triathlon. Jittery swimmers jump in the water and focus only on moving across it quickly. Anxiety and overexertion (which comes first?) lead to faulty breathing. A single drop of water in the wrong spot in your throat initiates a gag reflex, then panic. More gagging, more water. Your heart rate is though the roof. Your race plan is blown. Your swim is over.I am not a coach or a psychologist. I am one of “those people” that is more fish than cheetah. I grew up in the pool and at the beach. I worked as an ocean lifeguard for many years, so water is my second home. That being said, even I think about the movie “Jaws” every time I go into the ocean, and when I bump into something I nearly have a heart attack. For me, these difficulties are momentary blips on my heart rate monitor. They don’t change my love of the water. People that are good in the water usually have a long history there. Chances are, their early experiences in the water were positive and fun. Swim challenged adults, on the other hand, have a history of bad experiences in the water. You cannot relive your past, but you can reduce the power of bad memories by adding new ones that are pleasant and maybe even fun.Good memories are crucial to your success in the water. Trying to swim laps before you are comfortable in the water is likely to reinforce your anxiety, so avoid the white-knuckle approach. If you take your time in the right environment, you can create happy water memories. If they are powerful and plentiful enough, you will be on your way to overcoming your phobia. So forget about trying to swim for the time being. Your success with swimming is a mind game that you can win. Here are some suggestions for overcoming your swim-phobia:1. Play in safe waterNotice I said, “play,” not “train.” Before you train, you should spend some time playing in the water. The first step is to find water that is safe. Safe water is warm and comfortable, or cool and refreshing if it is hot out. It is shallow and small enough that it does not make you anxious. It is private enough that you feel free to move around without feeling pressure to “swim.”
Ideally, you should not feel any social pressure from coaches, well-meaning friends, or lap swimmers. You should not be worried about the wildlife lurking beneath you. Finally, there should be no pummeling by waves or boat wakes. The safety hierarchy goes something like this: shower < bathtub < hot tub < backyard pool < larger pool < pond < lake < bay < harbor < beach without surf < beach with surf < open ocean. Start where you are comfortable and move to other venues as your confidence grows.2. Make peace with the water by skill-buildingOnce you are in safe water, practice some skills to increase your competence in the water and build confidence. Wear your goggles and practice putting your head under the water and holding your breath for short periods of time. When you are down there, look around, relax. Listen to the silence and enjoy the peacefulness. Try letting some air out of your nose and blowing bubbles. Enjoy the sound and the sensation. Try humming as you do this. What do you hear?
Look at the light playing off the bottom. Go under and look back up at the surface of the water. It looks like shimmering liquid metal. Consider your time in the water a form of meditation. Keep your internal dialogue calm and imagine how seals dance underwater. Let your hands float in front of your face. Enjoy the weightlessness. Relax to the point that you are tempted to sleep. Breathing can be a problem but let's face it, it's has to be done. When you are playing in the water, practice blowing out some air, then turning your head to the side and taking a breath. Practice your timing and take your time. You can do this while seated or standing. When you get good at breathing, try doing somersaults (look mom!) under water while blowing air out your nose.Once you can do somersaults, try the “Dolphin.” You have probably seen swimmers dive into the water then explode out of it again, diving back in and out repeatedly like dolphins. The motion is a sort-of leap frog underwater. It is a great way to experience mastery in the water. The movement goes slower as the water gets deeper so it is best to start in water that is waist or chest deep. Keep your arms out of the water. You are going to spring off the bottom as if you are diving over a floating rope, then dive down head-first with your hands outstretched until you feel the bottom. If your dive is too shallow you will not get to the bottom. If it is too steep you will bonk your hands on the bottom and do a handstand. It takes some practice to get the angle right. When your hands touch the bottom, press your body forward, bend your knees and bring your feet under you. As your feet get under you, you will begin your spring back into the air. Blow out some air and in one motion use your feet to push hard off the bottom. Keep your hands at your sides and draw them up and over your head again as soon as you break the surface. Take a breath and dive again. This motion can be done one dive at a time but with practice you will go faster. Before you know it you will be flying through the water and air, exerting yourself, controlling your breathing—and yet, not drowning! These positive feelings will go into your bank of memories and will build your confidence. You will look cool too. 3. Complete a swim program based on comfort in the waterEven if you already know how, it is worthwhile to complete a swim program based on comfortably moving through the water. The Total Immersion program created by Terry Laughlin fits the bill. His program is geared towards becoming "fishlike." There are clinics, DVD’s, and books available. The clinics offer hands on help with each skill until you are completely at ease. The drills are useful for swimmers of all levels. This program will create positive memories of success in the water. So there you have it. A handy-dandy guide to tackling your water phobia. Now if anyone can tell me how to stop getting grease marks on my calf when I ride my bike…I’m all ears.
Author of the latest in the Ironman Series of books,
"Ironplanner: Iron-distance organizer for triathletes", USAT level 1 coach.