Afraid of the Swim? Here’s How Mindfulness Can Help

You’re swimming with your body, but what about the rest of you?

Photo: Getty Images

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Mindfulness seems to be everywhere. But it doesn’t only show up as the word of the day on clickbait sites, it’s also been written about by serious scientists for years. The consensus is that if you practice mindfulness, you’ll be more productive, have lower stress levels, and will concentrate better in your next race instead of thinking about which new bike saddle you need or what you’ll wear at the post-race party.

Mindfulness isn’t just for yoga class. Mindfulness can actually make you a fearless force in the water too. Here’s how mindfulness in swimming can make you an overall better triathlete.

Mindfulness Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

It can actually be pretty simple. 

You may know the feeling of having driven to work and upon arriving have no idea how you got there. That’s an example of mindfulness—or rather, a lack thereof. The idea is that you have a physical self that was driving, and a non-physical self that was vacationing in Bali and not really paying attention to the road. You might call your non-physical self your presence of mind. The fact that your presence of mind was not present in your physical body explains how you drove without “being there.” It probably worked out for you that day, but could easily go badly if you’re really paying attention!

As we can see in this driving example, the physical self has to be fully connected to the non-physical self in order for the whole self to function well. One of the functions you retain when you’re completely connected is full control over your body. As your physical and non-physical self become more and more disconnected, the less control you have. 

If you had been in a near miss car accident during your drive, you might have done or said some crazy things, like yelling or whipping the wheel a certain way. Doing things without thinking happens because you become so scared you aren’t actually in complete control of your body.

Sometimes not being mindful isn’t dangerous, like when you’re daydreaming during class, but in some cases it can be dangerous, like when you’re in the car—or when you’re in the water. 

Mindfulness in Swimming

So how does mindfulness relate to swimming? When you are in the water, it is easy to let your mind get distracted from the physical sensations in and around your body. “How many more yards? What’s for dinner?” Those thoughts aren’t dangerous if you are calm in body and mind. But if you have fears about your survival or fears about not being able to get more air, then any creeping of the mind away from the task at hand may steal control from your body. 

The key is this: when you’re mindful, you can maintain calm. And when you’re calm, you’re in control. 

OK, then, how do you find calm?

1. Feel and Commit to Calm

First, calm starts with taking the feedback the water and your body are giving you. What are you feeling? Do you feel the water on the sides of your head and face when you come up to breathe? Do you feel the pressure on your hands when you paddle? If you can connect in real-time with your senses, then you can be present for your body to give and take instructions from your mind. 

Commit to only doing things for which you can maintain this calm. If something makes you feel like you might get nervous, back up and go do the thing that you felt good doing. You’ll progress as you get bored with each easy thing and start to wonder what’s next.

2. Understanding Your Body and Water Together

Calm comes from knowing how the water works with your body and vice versa. One example of this is knowing whether or not you float. Most people do float—if you don’t float, that’s OK, you can still be a swimmer!—but it’s important to know your floating status in order to know how your body works with the water. Knowing what kind of body you have helps you stay present and work with the water instead of fighting it. Understanding the other aspects of buoyancy and propulsion, covered in our book Conquer Your Fear of the Triathlon Swim, are also important things to clear up in order to feel safe in open water.

3. Being Your Own Safety

Calm also comes from having your safety come from a place that you can rely on. Right now, maybe your safety feels like it comes from the bottom, the wall, or the kayakers. But if you know how to apply your buoyancy calmly (see No. 2), then the flotation you contain within your own healthy body can be used for your safety. Think of it like this: Those other things might not always be there, but you always have “you” with you, so you are the most reliable safety source. 

When you provide your own safety, you know that you can use your body to get as much rest and air as you want. But when you don’t feel you can get adequate air, this leads to a sneaking sense that you might not survive—and in that state of mind you won’t swim well. One way to rest at mile 2.222 of your iron-distance swim is to use your back float. If you are mindfully present in your body in your back float, this rest will be truly restful.

When you learn to apply mindfulness to your swim, you will be able to enjoy open water. You’ll be able to stand on the start dock and laugh with your friends. You’ll be able to obsess about whether you have time to go to the restroom one more time. The one thing you won’t be doing is worrying about whether you’ll survive. And not having that worry is the best feeling you could ever have.

Lifelong swimmer, NCAA Div 1 athlete, and multiple Ironman finisher Ali Meeks co-wrote the book Conquer Your Fear of the Triathlon Swim to help people heal their fear of open water and enjoy triathlon more than ever before. As the founder of ReadySetSweat Endurance Coaching, she is passionate about building confident swimmers and triathletes.

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