How to Master Your Fear of Open Water Swimming

I recently wrote a guest post for Beyond Transition (update 06/2013: now defunct apparently), a comprehensive website for all triathletes. The post is copied below.

It features tips on overcoming a fear of open water swimming. If you’re a beginner swimmer, this mental battle is often the toughest part of open water swimming. Developing open water swimming skills (both technical and mental) is vital for triathletes.

Dive in, it’s fun in the open waters!

Open water swimming tips to stay relaxed during a triathlon

Open water swim by IreneHammond (flickr)

6 tips for people who are scared of open water swimming

Swimming in the open water, be it a lake, river or sea, is very different to pool swimming. You’re in a strange environment with fewer comforts – no solid black line on the bottom to guide you, no lane ropes calming the water, no walls at which to rest, no shallow end where you can stand, a lack of visibility and any number of creatures to deal with.

When you add in the crowd of athletes, rough waters and waves crashing close to shore, it is understandable that people are intimidated by open water swimming.

However, it does not have to be so daunting. Here are some top tips to help get you over your doubts and through the swim.

1)    Safety First.
An obvious one perhaps, but taking common-sense precautions will help you minimize the danger – and your fears. Tell the lifeguard on duty your plans so they can look out for you. Always swim with others, especially in water with no lifeguards. Swim parallel to the shore – this will help guide you, and if you do get anxious you will have a shorter distance to shore for a breather. Maximize the safety, minimize your anxiety!

2)    Relax!
Have faith in your training. On race day remind yourself you’ve been here before in countless practices. If you’re scared of drowning, scan the many lifeguards, kayaks and boats supervising the swim. Don’t get frazzled by the pack – frustration only wastes energy. Prior to the swim start check out the layout of the course, identify the buoys, water conditions, the sun, etc. Have the proper equipment and be comfortable using it. Don’t let your brain run on overdrive – relax.

3)    Breathe…in AND out!
Holding your breath automatically increases your anxiety, as your body and brain will set off alarm bells about your lack of oxygen. Not only will steady and efficient breathing help you relax but it will fuel your muscles and help you perform better.

Make sure you are breathing out at a steady rate, and taking in enough breaths. You can breathe every two strokes, or breathe bilaterally every three strokes. Everyone has a stronger side to breathe to, but practice bilateral breathing for race day so you can sight to both sides, and avoid splashy competitors.

Be comfortable floating. If you do panic and can’t get your breath, just flip over on to your back and take some slow breaths. Swim on once you relax.

Control your breathing by focusing on blowing bubbles at a steady rate. This will ensure you breathe out regularly and will also take your mind off your anxieties.

4)    If you struggle to relax, distract your brain.
Count while breathing out (“1, 2, 3”). Count your strokes. Count your left arm for 50 strokes, your right arm for 50 strokes, etc. Focus on particular elements of your stroke you have been working on in the pool, e.g. hand entry, reach at the front, etc. Other tricks to distract your brain include building lists of your favorite songs, or places you want to visit. Just don’t lose total focus –make sure you are on course and on pace.

5)    Swim sensibly.
Ease in to the swim, start steady and increase the pace as you settle in. Ignore everyone else and swim your own race.

Avoid the hustle and bustle of the pack. Start at the back or to the sides of the pack. It may cost you some time, but you will be swimming in calmer waters. Focus on your breathing, stroke and relaxing. The chaos and churn will die down as the swimmers spread out.

Watch where you’re going, sight regularly in order to travel in a straight line and keep the swim as short as possible!

Take advantage of your fellow swimmers. They are not all out to kick you! Follow their bubbles, they can help guide you. Swimming alongside others can give you the comfort of a group, and you can take advantage of drafting, making the swim a little easier.

6)    Practice, Practice, Practice!
Just like on the bike, the more you practice open water swimming, the more comfortable you will become and the better you will swim. Do anything enough and it will become second nature! If you hate even the thought of open water swimming, then try and make it fun. Go to the beach with your family and include a training swim. There are lots of drills to help you in the open water, e.g. water polo swimming for sighting.

There is a lot to think about, but nothing to fear. Focus and relax and all will go swimmingly!

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