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My first open-water training swim may have been one of the worst in the history of open-water swimming. The horrifying tale went something like this: 43 degrees outside, 62 degrees in the lake and my first time in a wetsuit. I knew the open water would be tough, but I was a good swimmer. I would be fine.
As I inched into the cold water, I noticed that my chest felt tight from the wetsuit, but I was hanging tough—until I put my face in the water. The shock of the cold floored me, and I immediately panicked and sucked in water. “I’m OK,” I said to myself. I put my face back into the water. More water in my lungs. I tried not to inhale the water, but the reaction was automatic. My coach at the time was gesturing: “We’re going to swim out to that first buoy and then take a left and swim past the four buoys and circle back.” I could not breathe. Swim? You want me to swim?
The pressure on my shoulders and chest from the wetsuit was stifling. With my face in the dark water plus the wetsuit, it felt like I was burying myself alive. I couldn’t freestyle.
I couldn’t breaststroke, sidestroke or float. I was absolutely petrified and paralyzed in the water. I tried to swim. I would float, swim, panic and repeat, until I managed to swim about 400 meters in 30 minutes. Thirty minutes. I was deflated. I had my first open-water triathlon only three weeks away, and I couldn’t make it through my first open-water practice.
Here’s the good news: I survived the debacle, even though it was very terrifying, very real and very humbling.
More good news! The worst part about open water is the first handful of times you experience it. With practice, it truly becomes easier. I am now completely happy to swim in open water, even very cold water in a wetsuit with 2,500 of my closest triathlete friends—some who like to punch, kick and hit.
Here are a few beginner tips and tricks to make the open-water a little less intimidating.
Be prepared: Be very comfortable swimming in the pool before you attempt to get in the lake, ocean, bay, pond or river near you. You should be able to swim a decent distance in a pool—continuously—before attempting open water. In the open water, there are no walls or sides or resting places. Be confident that you can swim the distance without needing to stop.
Learning to bilaterally breathe (breathing on both sides) is also especially helpful in the open water. During an open water swim, you may find that the waves are crashing on the right or you are staring into the sun on the left. Having the ability to switch sides is a big help in these types of circumstances.
Stay in the shallow end: I encourage beginners to swim parallel to the shore at a depth where you can stand up and rest, if needed. Take your time, find a spot about chest-deep, and swim along the shoreline for the first few open-water sessions. If you feel nervous, just stand up. Compose yourself, catch your breath, say, “I can do this,” and get back to it. If you know that you can swim 400–500 meters continuously and you swim parallel to the shore for your first time, you will have a much better experience.
Sighting is key: Sighting is the process whereby you “peek” your head out of the water to see where you are going in the open water. Because there are no lines on the bottom of the lake to follow, you have to pick a focus point (outside of the water, in the distance) and make sure you are swimming toward that point. Usually you can use buoys as a point to sight, but it’s important to become flexible with sighting buildings, trees or tall landmarks so you will feel ready for anything on race day.
The wetsuit matters: The best thing to do is get fitted for a wetsuit. Find a local triathlon store and make an appointment. The employees will put you in a decent entry-level wetsuit, tell you how to put it on, and more. If you don’t live near a store for a fitting, follow the sizing guide very carefully on the wetsuit manufacturer’s website (and if you’re borderline between two sizes, your weight is more important than your height in fitting). The suit should be very snug, as it loosens in the water. Use great care in trying it on at home—you can’t use any lubricant product on the suit, as many retailers won’t let you return it if you do. Some brands allow one swim, so just confirm before you dive in.
On your first wetsuit swim, ease into the water. Don’t jump in and go all Michael Phelps. Instead, wade in up to your knees and acclimate. Next, go a little deeper in the water and acclimate. When the water reaches your neck, put your face in the water and out a few times. Once you have spent five or so minutes adapting, begin to take a few strokes parallel to the shore. The few minutes you spend acclimating will stave off potential panic.
Stay relentlessly positive: Finally, prepare your mind. Keep your thoughts positive—at all times. The mind is the biggest weapon in this sport. Do not so much as utter the words “panic” or “fear” or “I can’t.” Repeat the words “I can do this” in your head—every day, morning and night and at the start of every swim. Prepare mentally during your swims in the pool with continuous swim workouts. Do not allow the fear to paralyze you. If you have a bad experience, get back out there. Practice often and it will become easier. You can do this!
Meredith Atwood is a wife, mother, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta and blogs at Swimbikemom.com.