2. Practice Mindful Swimming. Replacing reactive thinking with calm, observant, reflective thinking is integral to the process of learning balance and every subsequent skill in the Total Immersion method. The ability to exert control over what and how you think in an environment where you may not be able to control much else is the best defense against anxiety. When teaching Total Immersion Open Water camps, I always teach our students how to use focus to create a "cocoon of calm" in the midst of exterior turmoil.
3. Practice with a Tempo Trainer. An inevitable result of the fight-or-flight response in open water is a shift to high-rate survival strokes, which greatly increases respiration rate. Faster, shallower breaths make you feel light-headed, making an uncomfortable situation even more so. Using a Tempo Trainer to encode a controlled tempo in your nervous system will also control your respiration rate.
4. Avoid the rush. After the start signal, take your time before you begin swimming, and/or start at the perimeter of the pack. "I remind my triathletes of pythagorean geometry: On a 200-yard stretch, if you start 60 feet outside the most direct path to the first buoy, you'll only swim one yard farther to get there," Says Total Immersion coach Dave Cameron.
What to Do When Anxiety Strikes
It's not the end of the world if you still feel your heart, breathing and stroke rates getting away from you. Here's how to handle that.
Hit the reset button. It's so common to feel some anxiety early in the swim leg, that all new triathletes should have a plan for recovering from anxiety—and practice it in advance. The athletes I observed at the Cayuga Lake event had the right idea: Swim 10 or 12 strokes of breaststroke—a more naturally relaxing style than crawl. Stretch out fully with head hanging between your shoulders. Emphasize a leisurely glide, exhaling fully to clear CO2 and slow respiration. As you do, remind yourself how great it is to be living it in such a vibrant manner. Take a few more strokes and breaths to visualize how you want your crawl stroke to feel, and then get back to it calmly and easily.
Become the "quiet center." I personally love pack swimming and swim better with close company than alone. A primary reason I enjoy it so much is that it sharpens my focus. When swimming with others in open water, I observe their strokes and turn it into a game, testing my ability to swim with a quieter, more leisurely stroke than anyone around me. In fact I enjoy it so much I'm sometimes sorry to see the race end. When in a pack, strive to swim with a more relaxed stroke than all those around you. This will help turn your swim leg from pressure-filled into a game or work of art.
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