The issue of confronting open water swimming anxiety is extremely common in triathlon. We believe that the vast majority of triathletes experience some level of this during their races. Some athletes will be able to calm themselves while others will resort to floating on their backs to get composed. Unfortunately many others will end their race by flagging down a kayaker or other safety volunteer.
Although most swimming improvements happen in the pool with a focus on technique and building aerobic fitness, we need not ignore the need for open water familiarization. With the absence of clear water, the inability to touch the bottom or side of a pool, waves and currents and possible preoccupation with predators the beginner triathlete may begin to sense an increased level of apprehension. If we couple this with a crowded swim scenario then it becomes obvious how the apprehension can progress to shear panic.
The first weapon in our arsenal against this untoward outcome is spending time swimming in the open water. The more times that a swimmer can get out there and experience the difference between the pool and the lake or river, etc., the more comfortable they will be in that environment. It doesn’t have to be a long swim or anything elaborate, just spend some time out there. Safety comes first. Never swim alone. Wear a brightly colored swim cap. Choose a swim location that is friendly to swimmers, i.e., no or low boat traffic.
Secondly, consider practicing some of your open water skills in the pool. With the controlled environment of the pool we can works on skills like sighting, non-stop swimming, dolphin dives, head-out freestyle and swimming in a crowd. Many triathlon-focused Masters groups will include these to increase your confidence and competency. For instance, circle swimming in a crowded lane of 12-15 triathletes can help them get used to the close quarters. Add “no-touch” turns to give that continuous swimming feel.
Finally, have a plan for race day. To further set you up for success on the swim portion map out a strategy. For athletes that have the potential for anxiety or panic on the swim I have them follow the 3 ‘C’s: Caution, Control and Confidence. Your first bit of strategy will start with where you position yourself. You may not be able to guarantee that no one will bump into you but by being cautious about where you are situated on the start you can minimize this somewhat. Think about starting off to the side or in the back of the field. Stay controlled. Over exerting at the start of the swim is one of the main reasons swimmers get in trouble. You are better off being the tortoise and not the hare. Be confident in your plan. Having a plan is a good idea, believing in that plan is a great idea. Increase your confidence in your plan by rehearsing it…several times before the race.
Swimming is a challenging skill to master. Be patient as you develop your technique, fitness and prowess. Know that with your hard work each race experience will get better and before long your open water swimming nervousness will fade.
Coach John Murray is a USA Triathlon Level II Coach with 10+ years of Masters level swim coaching. John is also co-founder and owner of Team MPI (Multisport Performance Institute) that provides a diverse spectrum of services uniquely structured for both novice and experienced multisport athletes. For more information, check out www.TeamMPI.com
MPI services include coaching, single & multi-day tri camps, clinics, swim video analysis, tri swim programs, bike fitting & more!