Advice on how to brave six of the most common swim-anxiety inducers.
Almost 500,000 people participated in a USA Triathlon event in 2013. Many of those people experienced fear or anxiety when faced with open-water swimming. Some people mumble excuses to get out of open-water training sessions while others just keep their fears bottled up with the dangerous hope that it will not affect them on race day.
If you’re one of those people, this is a reminder that you’re not alone! Below is a list of common open-water swimming worries and a few tips to mentally and physically conquer them.
“I’ve previously had a panic attack and I’m scared to try again.”
It takes a huge amount of courage to get back on the horse that threw you. But before you do, it is essential that you figure out what caused the attack in the first place. Don’t push the scary moments to the back of your memory bank and try to forget. Instead, replay the event in your mind and find where the panic started. When you discover what element is causing anxiety, you can start training to be better prepared and aware of the steps to take to avoid or prevent an attack.
“I am a very slow swimmer and I don’t want to be last out of the water.”
Someone has to be last out of the water, and that person is still in front of all the people sitting on the couch! There is no shame in being a slow swimmer or the slow-est swimmer in an event. As a lifeguard at many local multisport events, I admire the swimmers near the back of the pack for their courage and determination. Don’t let your speed, or lack thereof, be a reason to not try an open-water swim. Start with a small, local event of 400 meters or less to test your actual speed. You might just be surprised how many people you beat out of the water!
“The water was cold, I was in a tight wetsuit, the start was crazy … and it took me 10 minutes to put my face in the water.”
Cold-water swimming is something that requires adequate preparation. The temperature shock to your system will knock the breath right out of your lungs, deliver a brutal ice-cream headache and induce hyperventilating. If an upcoming race has unusually cold water conditions, prepare yourself ahead of time by practicing in similar temperatures. I highly recommend getting into the water before the race, if possible, to allow your body to adapt and adjust before the additional race factors come into play.
“I am always way off course when I pick my head up to look for the buoys.”
Someone with a balanced stroke will swim in the straightest line while a single-sided breather will likely veer off course to the side they breathe. Staying on course in open water starts at the pool by developing an efficient stroke and breathing technique. Bilateral breathing does not mean breathing every third stroke but breathing an even amount of times to both sides. For example: take 4–6 breaths on the left side followed by 4–6 breaths on the right side. Practice in the pool—along with incorporating sighting into your breathing cycle—before trying it in open-water training. Also to consider: Ensure that your arms are not crossing over in front of your body, and sight frequently.
“My fear of being around other people in open water is debilitating.”
Start small and begin in the pool. It is common for busy adult triathletes to squeeze in swim practice when it fits in their schedule, resulting in a solo training session in an empty lane at the pool. Plan a training session with one or two friends and swim in the same lane. Graduate to swimming side-by-side and then three-wide in the same lane to get comfortable being jostled in the water. Practice with the same people in open water. On race day, stay away from the cluster by starting toward the back or outside of the wave. Have a recovery plan, like swimming breaststroke with your head up or rolling on your back, if you do get caught in a crowd of swimmers.
“A SHARK/ALLIGATOR/SNAKE/CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON IS GOING TO GET ME.”
Of all the fears about open-water swimming, this one actually has the most validity behind it (minus the creature). Google will quickly pull up stories of triathletes attacked by sharks and alligators, even a rabid beaver from Delaware. But a few isolated incidents shouldn’t stop you from swimming in the open water as long as safety is the first priority. Some simple guidelines will keep you from being the next news story:
– Never swim alone
– Know the area and/or ask about any dangers present
– Stay close to shore
– Swim in a populated area
– Ask a friend to kayak or paddle next to you