Fear is a normal and natural part of the human experience; we're all scared of something, whether it's something tangible, like spiders, or more risky, like heights or flying. But another common fear that affects many a triathlete is a fear of open water swimming, which comes down to a mix of being scared of the unknown (what could be lurking in the murky depths beneath you), and the risk of dying (as deep water is more unpredictable and less calm than swimming in a pool, river, or lake). While these fears are likely to be unfounded, it's a serious mental block that needs to be overcome when getting in the water; a fear of open water swimming will definitely not help our performance, and more importantly, it may hold us back from entering events that we would otherwise enjoy because we're uncomfortable with the thought of swimming in the ocean. Read on to discover a few ways to help overcome your fear of open water swimming.
- Learn to relax: It can be daunting during your first open water swim, and if you don't have the proper calming techniques in place, you may begin to panic. If you do start to panic, take as much time as you need to tread water and get your bearings or slow your breathing rate; this will be a great time to remind yourself that you're not in any real danger, and once you overcome this mental block, you'll be open water swimming with the best of them in no time. Starting off in shallow water and floating on your back will get you used to the sensation of being bobbed around by waves or other water conditions, and this will slowly get you used to the sensation of being out deeper. Keeping your head up while floating on your back will get you used to the water lapping on your face (but not too far up, or else your legs will sink!).
- Focus on your breathing or stroke rate: When swimming in a pool, many triathletes allow their mind to wander; the calm monotony of a 50m stretch can help your mind trail off, and as you focus on the black line on the bottom of the pool, you think about and process what's going on in your day-to-day life. It's more difficult to do this while swimming in open water, as you're not in a contained pool; you're constantly swimming forward, and you have to be vigilant when making sure you're on the right path and not veering off into the deep. If you're worried that your mind will wander when swimming in the ocean, try focusing hard on one thing at a time; keep your breathing even, or focus on breathing bilaterally (or unilaterally if you can hold your breath for four strokes!). Alternatively, count your strokes, and set a goal for when you're allowed to stop for a break. If you want to remove the distraction of coming up for air, try swimming with a snorkel while you're getting used to the feeling of being in the open water.
- Get used to swimming in murky water: Here in Queensland, we're quite lucky to be surrounded by beaches with crystal clear water which feed gorgeous blue lakes and estuaries, but sometimes, you may not be so lucky with the water quality. Many events hold their swims in open lakes or protected harbours with murky water conditions and poor filtration where you may struggle to even see your hand entering the water in front of you. It's important to make sure you're comfortable swimming in waters where you can't see the bottom, because more often than not, it's this unknown factor that separates open water swimming from pool swimming. If you start in the shallows, then slowly submerge your head underwater, this will acclimatise you to reduced visibility in murky water, and the longer you sit, the more comfortable you'll feel swimming in these conditions. Try focusing on what you can see, rather than what you can't, like your arm entering the water in front of you, or other swimmers around you; this will give you a point of reference, and help you take your mind off what lies beneath.
- Join an open water swimming squad: 'The more the merrier' is an age-old adage that definitely applies to open water swimming. If swimming solo doesn't sit right with you, bring a friend with you to watch you from the shore, or better yet, a pal to swim alongside in the deep blue. By having a training buddy out in the water, you'll always have someone close by in case you panic, and you can match their pace to give you something else to focus on. Alternatively, if none of your friends are too keen on open water swimming either, consider joining an open water swim squad. This will give you the added benefit of having a professional coach alongside you during every stroke, so not only will be you be safe, but you can be sure that your technique will be correct as well. If you live along the coast, it's easy to find a squad who swim in the ocean. Find your nearest coastal club here on the Triathlon Queensland website.
- Make yourself more visible in the water: If it's not deep water that you're scared of, and instead that others around you (such as boats, paddle boarders, or other swimmers) won't be able to see you when you're in the water, you may want to take steps to making yourself more easily visible when you're out in the deep. Wearing a brightly coloured swim cap or togs while you're in the water will make sure that your splashing will not be mistaken for a peaking wave, and you'll be easily identifiable as a confident swimmer by anyone who sees you. For for extra safety and visibility, consider purchasing a tow buoy; not only are these brightly coloured to ensure high visibility, but their buoyancy will help keep you afloat if you're out too deep and need a quick break to catch your breath.
- Hang back during a race: While it's easy to grow accustomed to the comfortable safety of a pool with lane ropes and enforced timed gaps between each swimmer during training, it can be quite different on race day. Gone are the civil rules of the swimming pool; they're instead replaced with all swimmers trying to rush off to the front of the pack and swim over the top of one another. We've all copped an errant foot to the face at one point or another from someone who we've been drafting off, so if this is a factor that can make you uncomfortable when starting off in an open water swim, it may be worth considering starting at the back of your wave start. This will ensure that you can comfortably swim at your own pace during the swim leg, without having to worry about getting jostled in the water or feeling guilty about slowing down someone behind you. If you start at the back of the pack during a race, you'll come to find that swim starts are much less like a washing machine than you may have previously thought!
We all have things that make us uncomfortable, but as triathletes, we sometimes have to face them head on to reach the finish line. At the end of the day, it's important to remember that you are only racing against yourself, and it's okay to take any event at your own pace. No one's time matters but yours, and if open water swimming's not your thing, hopefully these tips will sate your fears and make you more comfortable and confident in swims to come.