Conquer Open Water Swim Fears

As race time nears triathletes make the journey toward open water. Some of us do so facing stifling fears. Today we are going to lay out steps you can take to conquer fears of the open water.

Baby turtles hatch and immediately head for open water. They are guided by generations of adaptation and lessons learned passed down through genetics. Unlike those cute little hardbacks not all of us have a natural sense of confidence when it comes to swimming without lane lines. Moving from the pool to open water can be an anxiety riddled experience. Even for the toughest of us.

Some take on this experience with a sense of adventure and playfulness, but for many it is the hardest part of the sport. A pure necessity if you want to complete a triathlon.

How can I stay confident in the water when all I can think about are my fears?

The answer to this can be specific to your fear, but the universal fix is practice.

Physical or mental, your training sessions need to build your confidence and skill sets. Each session should build upon the last. This will help empower you to overcome the road blocks that keep you from enjoying open water swimming.

The way I see it the progression to conquering open water fear plays out in four components:

1. TRANSITIONING: Build your confidence and skill set in the pool before heading to open water
2. SAFETY: Educate yourself on how to be safe in open water
3. OPEN WATER SKILLS: Transfer your skill set from the pool to outdoors
4. SIMULATE RACE DAY: Practice how you will race

Enough big picture jibba jabba. Lets dive in to the details!

 

TRANSITIONING

Pool first… Open water second. Natural progression right?

I know there are many different variables that cause someone to be scared of open water.

Yes SCARED. It is not a four letter word. Accept that you have a weakness holding back your potential and now we can look at how to beat it.

Take a minute and be honest with yourself.

What are you scared of?

Fears usually stem from a past experience. Maybe you do not want to be in a situation you could not control before. Maybe you struggled with a shorter distance than your current goal. Maybe you made it through a near drowning event. Whatever it is you doubt your abilities.

Whether you feel your limiter is physical, or mental, start where you are most comfortable. Practice in the most controlled environment before heading out into the wild. Swimming is highly dependent on technique and the pool is an ideal place to break the swim stroke down. Use drills and focus on pieces of your stroke one at a time. Build your confidence.

Address your fears in the pool as best you can, then move on to more challenging waters.

Are you a procrastinator or a studious athlete?

The procrastinator will cram swim days in during the final weeks before a race out of panic. They avoid their swim fears until the very last minute hoping for a miracle to get them through their event. This “miracle” usually comes as some form of the back stroke. The most comforting of the strokes. Hopefully the procrastinator makes it back to shore before the cutoff time. Not only do they tend to be slower they swim further. This is due to the zig zag course that was taken because they were not able to sight well.

This is not the way past your fears.

There is a better way!

Pool first… Open water second.

Spend at least 1-2 months in the pool before attempting open water. Build your technique in the comfort of the pool. Once technique is established increase the length of the intervals used in workouts. For instance from 50 yards to 100 yards. THEN increase the overall yardage of the workout.

EXAMPLE…

Swim workout 1: 20x 50 yards (1,000 yards total), Mostly drills with some freestyle for the final intervals.
Swim workout 2: 5x 100 yards + 10x 50 yards (1,000 yards total), Again keeping most of the workout focused on drills
Swim workout 3: 3 sets

[3x 50 yards Drills + 150 yards Swim] (900 yards total)

If you are able to maintain your form for the 150 yard intervals during Swim #3 think about increasing the overall distance of the workout. Add 10-20% of the last workout yardage until can cover the race distance, slightly more.

TIP: If you increase the volume of your workouts, but feel your form suffers, back down on the volume. Form is most important. If you do more volume on poor form you are only ingraining bad habits.

This is not what most people want to hear, but it works. Take the time to do it right. Drills can be boring if you are not engaged. Act like it is a waste of time and it will be, or pay attention. Tune in to your body position in the water water. Take note of how your feel for the water changes after completing a set of drills.

High five you achievers!

Nail the above before moving on.

Don’t know what drills to try out in the pool? Check out this article on beginner drills.

 

Visualize to Overcome Fear

Confidence can often overcome fear. Practice builds confidence. Not all practice needs to be done in the water.

We already talked about how we can prepare our bodies physically, now lets build ourselves on the mental scrimmage field.

WHAT TO DO:

Sit in a calm, quiet place.

Close your eyes and try to identify what it is about open water swimming that makes you tense, nervous, anxious, down right crap your pants.

Imagine yourself in that situation. 

Feel the reactions of being in that situation.

Acknowledge the fear.

Now see a solution.

 

Since this is all in your head you can practice taking on your fears without repercussions. The key is to be positive. Try to latch onto a solution. Do not let doubt and fear make you disregard the possible fixes. Open up to the possibilities of what could make the experience better.

Lets run through some coming fears…

 

Scenario 1: SCARED OF THE CROWD

Visualize yourself swimming in a mass of other swimmers.

Are you scared of being pulled under? Getting kicked? Losing your goggles?

Acknowledge the fear and SEE the solution:

Avoid the crowd from the beginning.
Start off behind the masses, or off to the side.

Once you get comfortable in your visualization go a step further. Build your confidence. SEE yourself being confident.

Imagine swimming in the same crowd. This time a hand lands roughly on your calf, maybe even grabbing at it. Control your emotions. Keep breathing comfortably. Now see yourself claiming your space with 5 strong kicks. The person behind you is rude and persistent. The hand keeps landing on your legs. The person is not deterred by the kicking, so you decide to be the bigger person and move over to let them pass. See them swim up past you. Then you quietly tuck in behind them to get a good draft.

BOOM! That was awesome. HIGH FIVE champ!

Scenario 2: SCARED OF THE DISTANCE

See yourself standing on the shore looking out on the course. Now visualize yourself swimming. You take a look and it seems TOO far.

Acknowledge the fear.

Feel what happens when you get overwhelmed.

Now come up with a solution:

You turn your focus to deep, comfortable breathes for the next 20 strokes. The next 20 strokes you focus on staying long in the water. Reaching out on each stroke like you would reach for the pool wall at the end of and interval. The next 20 strokes you focus on slipping your hand into the water at the beginning of the stroke, and so on.

Break the problem down into manageable chunks you can ace.

BOOM again. Nailed it!

Pay attention to how you feel during these run throughs. Remember this is a safe time to get anxious and scared. There is no danger as it is all in your mind. Let those feelings come out. Identify them. Then see then challenge yourself by seeing a solution.

How do you feel after you visualize the solution?

I would put my money on more relaxed.

Visualization is an extremely beneficial exercise as it lets us experience a situation and grow from it without actually doing it. How great is that? No risk and all reward!

 

SAFETY

Using the pool to build confidence in your swimming abilities is a great way to start. Visualization will also help you further address your fears. Knowing how to avoid trouble in the water, or what to do when things get dicey, is another set of tools that can get you past those pesky fears.

Swimming in the great outdoors does have increased risks.

The following are some common safety techniques that will help keep you confident when you do take on the open waters.

 

Buddy System

Safety in numbers applies to open water swimming. Having small boats, like kayaks or canoes, escort you is ideal. This gives you a set of eyes above the water and gives other boaters a larger object to spot and avoid. If your boat buddy wants to swim as well try swimming one direction while your buddy paddles. Then switch for the return trip.

If you do not have a buddy with a boat pair up with at least one other swimmer. This works best when your buddy is of similar ability.

 

Plan Ahead

Swim at low traffic hours, such as early morning. Check the weather before heading out. Look for pending storms, or high winds. If a storm comes up suddenly while you are out in the water work with your buddy to get back to shore ASAP.

TIP: You can take turns drafting off each other to go faster. In this case I would suggest the draftee touches the feet of the lead swimmer to let them know they are sticking together.

Ask more experienced open water swimmers in your area for a good swimming spot. You can find locals through triathlon clubs or Masters swim groups.

Once you have a body of water and location choose a route along the shoreline, or in a cove. These routes will be more protected from wind and boat traffic than swimming out into a body of water. Wind can make swimming a straight line very challenging and it also increase wave size which have their own challenges.

If swimming in the ocean ask lifeguards for advice on the safest areas to swim.

Before getting in the water talk with the group, and your buddy, about stopping to regroup at particular landmarks should you get separated. When swimming with larger groups this is a great way to ensure everyone is accounted for.

 

Be Visible

Wear bright colored caps that contrast with the color of the water.

Remember the sun reflects off the water. Mostly in shades of orange, yellow and white. Neon green is my favorite choice.

You can also can also purchase an inflatable buoy to tow behind you for extra visability. Kiefer makes one called the SafeSwimmer Buoy that quickly inflates and has a dry pouch for storing keys, identification, or a GPS unit while you swim. These are great for increasing your visibility and I highly recommend one if you have to swim alone.

NOTE: It will slow you down. Just think of it as resistance training.

 

Dress Accordingly

If you are nervous about open water a wetsuit can be like a calming blanky. Wetsuits increase your buoyancy making it much easier to stay high in the water. This increases your speed, as there is less drag. Also, if you get tired and need a break just stop and the suit will keep you afloat.

Wetsuits can feel constricting at first. If this is the case put it on and try doing some short “laps” in a shallow section of water. Focus on long, smooth strokes and regular breathing. Getting water in a suit can make it feel more comfortable. Also, spending time in it in a controlled situation will help you get used to having a second skin.

When picking out a wetsuit short sleeve suits are easier to fit and often a cheaper option. Long sleeves provide extra warmth and some additional buoyancy, but can also fatigue the shoulders quicker in weaker swimmers. Some brands sell long sleeved tops that can fit over a sleeveless suit, such as the ProMotion Tri Sleeves or De Soto’s T1 Black Pearl Pullover. This is a great option as you can start with a short sleeve suit and buy the top later if needed.

There are many wetsuit companies. Each with their own men’s and women’s specific cuts.

 

Putting On Your Fancy Pants

Yes I am referring to that skin tight rubbery suit that costs more than most of the daily dress wear in your closet. Putting on a wetsuit is important to how the suit feels. If you do not continually take out the slack in a long sleeved suit the material can end up tight and constricting on the shoulders.

Start by sliding your legs in one at a time pulling the material up to about the bottom of your calf. Wearing plastic bags on your feet can make it easier to get this started. Ensure that as you pull the suit up it fits snuggly to your crotch. Continue to work any slack out of the thighs stretching it up towards your head as you go.

Careful with those nails! You do not want to rip the suit, though there is a fix for that.

Aqua Seal is a great product I have used on many a tear. I have found this at my local Dicks Sports store in the fishing section. They sell it in a patch kit for waders. This is the product I have had the best success with if you have used other products that worked please leave me note in  the comment section at the bottom. 

Continue working the suit up to your stomach then put your arms through their respective holes. If it is a long sleeve pull the sleeves past your wrist a bit and continue to pull the material taught towards your chest. This will ensure there is plenty of material left to close the zipper.

Once you are zipped up you can pull the ends down at your ankles and wrists if need be.

TIP: Liberally apply a product like Body Glide to your forearms, shins and ankles to help get the wetsuit off. Use it on your neck to prevent chaffing.

 

SKILLS

Now that you have prepared in the pool, done your visualizations, and have your safety tips nailed down it is time to hit the open sea. Or lake. Or river. Or you get the drift.

HA! drift…

The wifey can’t stand the cheesiness either.

Moving on…

The following is a list of skills specific to open water swimming. Practicing them will further elevate your confidence in the water and help plunder those fears that have been holding you back.

 

Mental Composure

If you have done your visualizations as noted above you will be better prepared to keep your fears in check during the first swim in open water. Whether you have, or have not done the exercise in the past take a minute, or three, to visualize before you get in the water.

Accept your fear.

See yourself conquering it.

Now go to it!

 

Pace Yourself

Start out at an easy pace. Holding back even.

Pay attention to your breathing. Take long, fluid strokes.

Focusing on a normal breathing pattern will help keep you calm and take your mind off fears. Once you are comfortable you can play around with changes in pace.

 

Sighting in the Pool

The first time out in open water you are pretty much guaranteed to swim a course that would make onlookers guess you had been drinking a suspect beverage from a paper bag beforehand. Swimming straight without lane lines or markings on the bottom of a pool is a learned skill and can be practiced before heading out into the wild.

Without lane lines you will have to guide yourself by taking a look every now and again. This is called sighting. Sighting is a catch 22. You need to know where you are going, but when you lift your head it will slow down.

Why is that?

When you lift your head to take a peak your hips tend to drop. This creates more drag and slows you down.

It will also change your stroke enough to cause fatigue if you are not used to the movement. You can minimize these drawbacks by practicing.

WHAT TO DO:

Start with sets of 25-50 yards. On every 4th stroke trying taking a look at the far end of the pool by lifting your head as your recovery hand makes its way forward. Breathe in as you lift the head. Blow out as you put your head back in the water.

To minimize hip drop look slightly off to the side you are breathing from rather than straight ahead. This reduces how high you have to lift your head.

 

Sighting Outside

You already practiced this inside. Now it is time for the real deal. You will need to use landmarks like trees, hill tops, docks, buoys, or the sun to guide you. If you are a stronger swimmer it can also benefit you to take a look back as well.

Focusing on a point ahead of you will get you to that spot. It will not ensure you get there in the shortest distance.

Think about it.

If you sight ahead and see you are headed towards a hill top on the horizon. Then you swim 20 strokes. Forgetting to sight you drift 20 yards to the left. When you sight again it may still seem like you are still on course with the hill top if it is far enough away. If you were to look back though you would be able to better tell that you had drifted and could make changes to your stroke.

 

Waves

In the pool be sure to keep a high elbow on the stroke recovery. This is not only good form it will help keep your arms from getting caught on waves when you start swimming in open water. If you swim in a small, shallow pool with larger groups, like a masters program, you may experience chop to practice on before taking on the real thing.

It is best to breathe away from waves to avoid getting a face full of water. It is also best to sight when you are at the top of a wave for the best view.

If coming at you from the side, waves can greatly affect the course you swim. See next section.

BE AWARE: Wavy conditions make it MUCH harder for boaters to see you.

 

Swim At The Current, Swim Straight

Unless you get a particularly calm day there will be some kind of current. Even in lakes. In rivers this tends to be easy to figure out. On lakes watch the direction the waves are moving. In the ocean talk with the lifeguards to find out where the currents are, how they move and how strong they are. This will vary with the tides.

The best situation is having the waves coming at you from behind. This will help push you forward and make you feel like a rock star. Though your star status will quickly change as you have to turn around and head home. Straight into those same waves. This is tiring, but easier to navigate than waves coming from the side. The trick is timing your sightings as you are coming over the top of a wave. This will give you the best view.

Waves coming at you from the side will push you off a straight course. Lets say you are swimming towards a dock and waves are coming at you from the left.

If you continue to swim straight towards the dock the waves will push you to the right. You may not realize this unless you look back as mentioned above, but trust me it will happen.

In order to stay on a straight line in this situation you must swim towards a point slightly left of the dock, or slightly into the waves. The stronger the waves the further towards them you will have aim.

 

Bi Lateral Breathing

Breathing to both sides is a great asset when swimming in open water. It is quite helpful especially when conditions are choppy. For instance if waves are coming at you from the left side you can choose to breathe more to the right. If you can only breathe to one side and the waves are coming from that direction it will be a less than ideal experience. You will swallow a lot of water.

Bi lateral breathing can also make it easier to sight off the shorelines without having to pick your head up and look forward.

 

SIMULATE RACE DAY

Ready to take on the race? Alright, lets do it… before race day.

With the race a week, or two away your fears should now be closer to speed bumps than road blocks. It is time to dial it in for the big day and practice the finishing touches to have you ready to rule the waters like Poseidon.

 

Standard Warm Up

Doing the same warm up at the beginning of your workouts, and then on race day, will help you call upon the confidence you earned in past workout sessions.

Your body has muscle memory. In a way it remembers what exercises you have put it though and adapts accordingly. If you do a regular warm up for workouts in the weeks before a race, and then do that very same warm up right before the start of your race your body will know what is expected to do and be ready for it.

TIP: You can use this warm up strategy with running and biking as well.

You woke your brain up from sleep to get you to the race. Think of this warm up as you brain waking up your body to do the work.

My favorite warm up is a quick progression of drills that makes sure I have the basics nailed down:

10 seconds kick on stomach (roll to side to breathe)
10 seconds kick on each side
10 strokes 3-Strokes-&-Glide drill
10 strokes Catch Up drill
20+ strokes freestyle, building pace

Use the above progression 10-15 minutes before start time to prep your body for action.

 

Swim Your Race

After warming up it is time to swim your race. This means swimming how you have trained. This sounds simple, but in the adrenaline rush of race morning you can find yourself doing crazy things. Like having a fear of open water, but toeing the start line with a posse of 6 foot collegiate swimmers behind you.

Race like you train.

If you have a fear of open water starting your race in a frantic, froth of black rubbery arms probably will not help. Sticking to the outside, or back of the group to start will allow you a much calmer foundation to fight your fears from. There is no shame in this. Depending on the course it can even be more strategic.

At the start stay relaxed. Stay long. Stay smooth. Just like you did during your practice sessions. If you find yourself suddenly panicking slow down a bit and focus on getting in deep, regular breathes. Call upon the visualizations you were supposed to have done earlier. How did you get out of this pickle then?

Once you get your confidence and rhythm back then go after some speed.

 

Bump Your Buddy

Once you are getting comfortable in the water ask your swim buddy to purposefully bump into you a few times while you are out swimming. Try some short intervals where the two of you swim close together. Practice keeping your calm and maintaining steady breathes even while getting jostled.

By swimming short intervals while doing this you can give, and get, encouragement from your buddy between these light bouts.

 

RECAP

As I wrap this up you might be ready to give up. What’s that?

There is too much to remember!

It takes time and effort on your part, but the steps are in this post.

1. TRANSITIONING
2. SAFETY
3. OPEN WATER SKILLS
4. SIMULATE RACE DAY

Bookmark this article and come back to it as you move on to another step.

The earlier you start the progression the more time you will have to adjust in the water and build you confidence.

You cannot effectively fix the problem until you identify it.

TAKE ACTION NOW.

Let me know your fear about open water in the comments section below and I will personally help you get the process started.

 

Thanks for reading!

2016-12-08T22:24:12-04:00 Categories: Training|Tags: |2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Donovan February 17, 2016 at 10:48 am

    One thing that has helped me in endurance work, especially if its something I’m new to is to allow myself to have some sort of break. During my marathon, I allowed myself to walk through the water stations. Getting to the finish line that first time was more important than being able to say I never stopped running at the risk of not completing the race.

    Similarly for open water swimming, if I’ve felt exhaustion coming on, I’ve switched to breast stroke for a short bit to give myself a little break in the midst of the insanity. Once my mind calmed down a bit and the exhaustion starts to recede, I switch back to freestyle.

    This strategy isn’t good for PRs but its great for completion and helps with the fear management.

  2. TGB February 17, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks for the extra tip Donovan 🙂

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