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How to not Panic in Open Water - Overcome Swimming Anxiety at your Next Triathlon Race

Andrei Lozovik

Mass Wave Start is common in triathlon races, so you should be prepared to experience it at your next event. Here is the drone video of the swim start at Ironman 70.3 Kona on June 4, 2016: 

Do you have a fear of swimming in lakes and oceans? Do you have Thalassophobia? Mental focus, Adaptation, Practice, and Strategy are the four keys for confidence in Triathlon.  

by Yanti Ardie of YtriMultisport

Here are your MAPS to preparing you for open water swimming (OWS) in triathlon, gleaned through years of experience among bodies of water and athletes alike. I'm a World Open Water Swimming Association Certified Coach & Official -- the sport in which people who ought to be certified themselves (in a manner of speaking) practice their insanity through mile, 5K, 10K, and don't-even-want-to-mention-them other distance races.

MAPS stands for Mental focus, Adaptation, Practice, & Strategy. You may not need, want, or be able to do all of what's outlined in MAPS, nor is this a comprehensive encyclopedia of open water swimming, but these are good guidelines to help prepare you for what can (and in my opinion should) be an enjoyable and thrilling experience: the open-water swim leg of a triathlon.

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M for Mental focus (the M in MAPS)

I’m no yogi—but this can work if you can’t play in an ocean every day (works even if you can). Swimming open water requires mental focus. Few of us have done as much swimming as walking, running or biking, meaning that swimming is going to be far less intuitive, and so much of swimming is technique (form), including breathing. In particular, breathing meditation provides a serious advantage in swimming, particularly open water swimming, which adds layers of strategy and conditions to pool swimming.

There are many kinds of breathing practice and meditation (feel free to Google). Most of them will do, but this is what I do for 5-10 minutes every day:

  1. Open your mouth but don't focus on breathing in through the mouth; just breathe in naturally. In swimming, you will be breathing in and out through both your nose and mouth, so you may as well practice it that way.
  2. Breathe deeply into the stomach. Obviously, you breathe into your lungs, but thinking of your stomach will help you draw your breath deeper into the far reaches of the lungs where the most efficient oxygen exchange takes place. Do this at a "normal" rate, but you'll find if you breathe in as much as you can, you'll be inhaling for longer than usual.
  3. Breathe out at the same rate, making sure to fully exhale.
  4. Repeat, neither trying to think of anything nor nothing; just let your mind do what it will, but keep your focus on the sensation of air moving into your body and out of your body.

    Why do this every day?

    Like all else, it's a lot easier and more effective when practiced. Practice it on dry land, and it's a lot easier to do during a tough swim workout. Practice it on dry land and during tough spots in swim workouts, and it's a lot easier to apply it in a high-intensity race situation. As a side benefit, this is also awesome to do during cycling and running when you're struggling. Overall, it helps you stay calm and be efficient instead of feeling like you're battling your body, the elements, and the course or workout.

    Now, here's where it's really key: The Race.

    Do this meditation while you are standing on shore (or wherever you are) before the swim. It will calm your nerves and put you in a good state of mind to get into a large, deep body of water with dozens of thrashing solid bodies around you. This is even more key: CONTINUE TO DO THE BREATHING even after you get into the water! Go only as fast as continuing the breathing focus will allow (another good reason to practice it on dry land and during your swim workouts beforehand).

    This makes a huge difference in controlling the initial heart rate spike, going out way too hard, and possible sensations of panic that many new triathletes experience during the swim portion. Once you're doing fine and swimming as well as you can, then go for it! Even if you never quite feel like you even out, you will have had a far smoother, less energy-expending and probably faster swim than if you didn't do breathing meditation. That's particularly important when you've still got a gut-busting bike and run to go.

    Finally, VISUALIZE your swim.

    Do it often. Do it for as long as the swim might take, if you can. Your body physically responds to mentally imagined cues, and this will help your body respond the way you want it to on race day. Visualize the course, the weather; visualize the gun going off and the feeling of the water and temperature as you enter and begin to swim. Visualize any problems you may have and visualize handling them smoothly and quickly.

    A for Adaptation (in MAPS)

    This is particularly important if you’re looking at doing a triathlon in cooler water, and it’s somewhat related to the next part of MAPS (Practice). You need to get used to the feeling of breath control and/or exertion while being submerged in water that’s colder than your body.

    The more open-water experience you can get, the better. Once is still infinitely better than nothing. Your local swim club, Masters swimming, or triathlon group may offer open-water practices or even clinics. Take advantage of this! Even if you have to set a day aside and travel a distance to get there, it’s more than worth it.

    If you really cannot get to open water before your race, find a cold pool to practice in. Try to do this even if your race is in warmer water, simply because the sensation of swimming in a cold pool can help you get used to the feeling of breath being taken away and tightness in your chest that is common in newer open-water swimmers regardless of water temperature.

    On race day, if at all possible, get in the water to swim and warm up. The closer to the start the better, but just getting in is good. Really get your face/head in there and SWIM. If you only have time to get in and out, then dunk your head in and breathe out. Turn, breathe in, head back in water, breathe out.

    If that’s truly not possible, squirt and splash your face with lots of cold water beforehand. Get it in your hair and under your cap.

    P for Practice (The P in MAPS)

    Unless you have no access or just one shot at an open-water swim practice before your race (in which case you should definitely pay more attention to M, A, and below), GET IN OPEN WATER AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Swim in it. Swim hard. Play in it. If there are waves, learn how to duck under them/get through them, or if there’s chop in open water, to swim over them (a higher or straighter-arm recovery may be necessary). Get comfortable with breathing on either side.

    Try swimming in groups.

    Sometimes, the 'washing machine' of a swim start or the contact when separate waves of athletes start to swim into each other is exaggerated. But if you’re not confident in the water, a foot to the face, dislodged goggles, a giant suckful of salt water, and a wave in your face on the very next breath (all at once!) can quickly become serious. Will all sorts of crazy stuff happen to you on the swim? Possibly. Will some of it happen to you eventually on the swim? Absolutely. Might it happen during your first tri? Yup! Be prepared!

    Here are some possibilities for practice in a pool.

    • If your pool has a deep and shallow end, set your stuff up at the deep end. During rest between intervals and sets, do not hang on to the wall. (If there's only a shallow end, don't let your feet touch the ground. Float or scull lightly.) If you want to take a drink, tread water and do so.
    • Bring friends or family members or children.
      This can be during open pool time or if you can get a free lane during lap swimming). Take a couple strokes and as you turn for a breath, have someone do a big splash of water in your face. Try to do this so you are taking a number of strokes and don't know on which breath someone will send a big splash or wave your way.
    • Have several athletes swim down the lane at the same time and deliberately try to swim over each other. Do a good 300-400m this way. 
    • If you have kids, or mean friends, swim down the lane and (albeit they should really avoid harming you and you them) have them try to impede you--grab an ankle, swim right on your side, grab your shoulder, dunk you as you're up for air, pull your goggles strap, etc.


    And the one thing you will certainly have to do in every open water swim: Sighting. To practice in a pool:

    • Look at the far end, close your eyes (so you can't track the line on the bottom of the pool), take several strokes and see where that gets you. This is also a good way to see if you have stroke imbalances and tend to pull to the left or right.
    • Keep practicing to increase the number of strokes you can take before needing to sight the far end of the pool.
    • Try sighting with people swimming all over you.

    S for Strategy (in MAPS)

    • KNOW THE SWIM COURSE. Find it on the race website, e-mail the director for info (and swim it beforehand if possible). Go through it in your head. Know where the water buoys are and what they look like. Find landmarks if possible. If not, even the edge of a cloud will do for the first swim buoy.
    • What kind of a start and exit will the swim have? Run in? Shallow water? Deep water? Practice that. (Tip: if it’s deep water, start horizontal).
    • If you’re not confident or haven’t been able to get as much open-water practice as you like, or if you’re a slower swimmer, and ABSOLUTELY if you think you may need to do any stroke other than freestyle for any part of the triathlon, start in the back and WAY off to the side. Starting 20m to the side (just for example) would add only ONE METER to a buoy that’s 200m off. You get clear water to swim in, which makes all the difference.
    • People will bunch up at the turning buoys. Steer clear. Just a meter or two to the outside adds very little to the distance and will likely be faster if you’re not in the bottleneck of arms and kicking legs.

    Again, there’s much more to open-water swimming than I can write in a concise article, but training using these MAPS will give you confidence and skills in the swim game. Having a smooth swim puts you in optimal position for good execution on the bike and run, too, instead of having expended a bunch of energy on the swim that taxes you and might cause you to use some of the bike to recover instead of race.

    Good luck to you—it will come from good preparation!


    Yanti Ardie, one of triathlon's pioneer in Indonesia - Check it on AsiaTRI: http://goo.gl/9lNRfr


    EMAIL indoaya@yahoo.com
    WEBSITE http://www.facebook.com/ytrimultisport

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