Dealing with Anxiety in the Open Water
Swimming in the open water is definitely a scary thing for a lot of triathletes. The unknown of what lies beneath the water, the possibility of large waves or currents, and swimming with thousands of other people, are all rational concerns when it comes to swimming in the open water. One of the questions that I get most often regarding open water swimming is how to best deal with the anxiety that comes with it?
I am considered one of the strongest swimmers in the sport of triathlon, but I am definitely someone that struggles with anxiety when it comes to swimming in the open water. You will very rarely see me swimming in the lake or ocean, except when there’s no pool to get in my pre-race day swims. I will always search for a pool over swimming in the open water because I don’t want to deal with the extra stress that comes with it. Fortunately I have enough years of swimming that I am able to get away with this, but it is still important to figure out how to deal with these worries and do things that will help you have a successful swim come race day. While I am someone that shares these worries and avoids the open water as much as possible, I do still have some tips that may help ease these feelings the next time you are in the open water.
Practice Open Water Drills in the Pool
1. One cause of anxiety in the open water is swimming with a lot of other people and getting kicked, splashed, etc; so try to recreate these moments in the pool with other people. Try swimming in the lane with other people swimming in front of you and beside you so that you can get used to how it feels having to swim next to others. Don’t be afraid to have contact with the other people because this will most likely happen in your race.
2. Another cause of being uncomfortable in the open water is swimming in your wetsuit, so make sure to have some swim sessions where you swim in your wetsuit and get used to the constrictive feeling. It is also important to note that finding a wetsuit that properly fits you is key to feeling more comfortable. Make sure your wetsuit has flexible shoulders and hits you in the right place on your neck.
3. A lack of confidence in your open water swim ability can also induce fear come race day. Make sure to have sessions in the pool where you are practicing sighting and breathing to both sides so that you have the ability to do these things with ease in the open water. You never know where waves will be coming from or where you have to sight, so practice for different conditions.
Ease into Open Water Swimming
1. Not all open water swimming is created equal. When you are starting off swimming out of the pool, begin with a body of water that is flat (no waves) and where you can swim in shallow water. This will help you get used to swimming in the open water, but without the additional stress of big waves and deep ocean water.
2. Always swim with a buddy. There is nothing more terrifying for me than swimming alone in the open water. If you don’t have a swim buddy, then have someone in a kayak or on a stand up paddle board so that you have a safety net to rely on in case something happens.
3. Practice the pool drills in the open water (such as sighting) and get used to floating around in your wetsuit.
Race Day Techniques to Ease Anxiety
1. Start in a position where you are most comfortable. I personally feel way less anxious if I can have a starting spot on the outside. If you too want more space and be surrounded by less people, then try to start in the back or on the outside. This will allow you the opportunity to most likely get hit less and be able to swim at your own pace and comfort level.
2. Ease into the race. Spiking your heart rate right away might make you more anxious, so start off at an easier pace, allow yourself to get comfortable, and then build your speed throughout the race. Being strong at the end of the race will help ease your worries rather than getting extremely tired and feeling like you might not make it to the end.
3. If you feel yourself having a hard time catching your breath, then roll over on your back, take some deep breaths, and concentrate on easing your mind. You can also do some head up breaststroke if you need a few moments to get your bearings and feel more comfortable. At Kona in 2018 I got stung by a jellyfish and didn’t think I was going to make it to the end of the swim. I slowed my pace, lengthened my stroke, and made sure to get my heart rate down so that I could finish the swim.
4. Focus on your breathing and stroke technique. Sometimes my mind drifts into what sea life might be around me or the roughness of the waves, and I have to redirect my mind to what I can control such as deep breathing and stroke technique. Watch your entry in the water or your catch, look at the person’s feet in front of your, listen to your breathing, and try to focus on what you can.