Open Water Dread!
It’s the time in the UK when triathletes are starting to consider their first open water dip. If you are racing soon then of course, you need to. I wouldn’t advise rocking up to your first race having not had a few dips outside no matter how experienced you might be. But what if this is your first season of triathlon, SwimRun or first open water event? Then this is a BIG deal and probably the cause of most of your anxieties about the training ahead. Here’s my tips on how to conquer your fear of open water swimming.
Manage your expectations, your first swim won’t go well if you expect to swim like you can in the pool. You will panic, you won’t swim in a straight line and you will forget all the technique you worked on for the last six months. So don’t go to your swim spot expecting to swim a PB just because everyone has told you how much faster you are in a wet suit! Change your goals, baby steps, below is a more manageable approach:
- Aim to stay in the water for 5-10 minutes.
- Plan to just move around to keep warm by whatever means feels the least scary e.g. breaststroke, on your back or head up freestyle.
- Let the cold water shock subside until you can keep your breathing under control. Then get out, job done, you survived your first open water dip!
- Next, repeat these short dips but add extra little challenges such as aiming to move between features for example from the shore to a buoy and back.
- If you are not confident putting your head into the water then introduce it gradually. Swim head up freestyle and then every five strokes put your face in and blow bubbles, then every 3, then 2 etc.
- When you can continuously swim head down just breathe when you need to. You may be really comfortable breathing every 3 or 4 strokes in the pool but initially you may need to breathe more often and sporadically in open water, this is fine, whatever feels the most natural and relaxed.
Once you are swimming comfortably with your head down you will need to use the most important open water skill, sighting (looking up to see where you are going). Make sure you practice this in the pool first! Just because you never swim into the lane rope in the pool does not mean you will swim straight in open water. I love to try this test when coaching in the pool, give it a try; line yourself up in the middle of the lane, push and glide down the centre, then close your eyes and start swimming, stop when you hit the lane rope. Most hit the lane rope between 10 and 15 metres into the length, meaning if you don’t look up at least once every 10 metres outside, you will swim further than you need to. If in doubt look up and don’t be afraid to look up multiple times within a few metres to really lock on to your target. If you go off course in a race you will likely panic, swim hard to get back on course and dig yourself into a hole as you expend unnecessary energy and zig-zag your way to the exit. The fastest way from A to B is a straight line, even if you have to stop and get your bearings it will still be easier than swimming off course.
If you have the time try to add open water swimming as an extra swim session. That way you don’t have the pressure of covering the same distance you might in the sacrificed pool session, particularly while you are still building your confidence. Look to add some structure to that open water session such as distances at different effort levels, trying different breathing patterns or trying to swim near others. All useful skills in a race and it will take your mind off any open water anxieties.
Remember, you are not alone! Most triathletes have been through all of of the same fears. The more times you get in open water the easier it will get, be brave, persevere and STAY SAFE!