When it comes to open water swimming there are two types of people: those who are uneasy or become unnerved, and those that don’t.
The good news is everyone can move into that second group with smart strategies, techniques and practice. The better news is your open water swimming experience doesn’t have to be just the absence of fear but it can be an enjoyable, confidence-boosting part of your training and racing.
More: Start to Finish: Owning the Open Water
Fear: Self-Doubt Psych Out
Your mind loves to play tricks on you, usually it helps keep you in your comfort zone, but it sometimes plays tricks that can scare the wetsuit right off of you. These mind tricks can show up in many forms but common ones look like this:
“Wow. That looks far…can I really swim that distance?”
“I’m so slow that’s going to take forever!”
“It’s choppy. I’m going to drown.”
Trust the facts. Just because your mind thinks something doesn’t mean you have to believe it. If you’re psyched out at seeing the whole race course and far-off buoys from the shore, turn your thoughts to your training sessions of equal or greater distance. Yes, I can do that distance! I’ve done it before, I will do it today. Seeing the whole course always looks far, just as it would if you could see the whole bike or run courses fade into the horizon.
More: Psych Yourself Up for Open Water
Turn to your technique. Trust that if you’ve taken care of your fundamentals—good position, good catch, good kick, good breathing and good rhythm—there is no other option than to move forward and conquer the distance. Even if the water is choppy your body will still have the advantage. It might take longer than normal but you will do it.
If you’re still feeling uneasy in the water, roll a little bit further than normal when you turn to breathe. Rather than just barely getting your mouth out of the water when you breathe, rotate your upper torso a few inches further so you face more of the sky. This can help relax your tensions. Practice in the pool to find your optimal “extra” rotation while maintaining a solid overall stroke.
More: The Principles of Freestyle Swimming Technique
Shorten the horizon. Forget what’s needed to swim the whole course and instead focus your attention on the next 10 to 20 strokes, continually repeating that count. If that gets tedious, count up to 100 or more. This breaks down the distance into more comprehensible chunks and before you know it, you’ll be rounding the final turning point and heading for dry land.
Fear: Scary Past Experience
For some, fear of open water isn’t just made up; something really happened. An actual event combined with intense emotional experience gets quickly embedded into your nervous system making any thoughts of swimming an anxious moment. But your past doesn’t have to be your future, and you CAN make a successful return just as hundreds of other swimmers have done from traumatic experiences.
Start small. Depending on how intense your experience was it’s always best to ease your way back into it at your own pace. If necessary, find a trusted coach who can empathize with you.
In a pool, start in the slow lane with flutter board and intervals of putting your face in the water. Get used to breathing again by blowing bubbles under water. Leave any thoughts of embarrassment at home and acknowledge the progress you’re making even when it’s not easy.
More: Proper Breathing for the Swim