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Swim Panic Free in Open Water - Four Ways to Stop Fear Before it Bubbles Up

Andrei Lozovik

Many newcomers to the sport of triathlon are held back by one factor: Fear of open water swimming. Even accomplished pool swimmers can find this new challenge to be daunting. But just like with running and cycling, it just takes correct technique and practice to make open water swimming less scary- and maybe even fun!

Triathlon Taren agrees. “I think that it's just completely natural to be afraid of open water. It's a foreign world. We don't live in the water. We're horizontal, we're not vertical. There are all kinds of reasons to be afraid of the water.“

#1 - Relaxation

This is where correct technique comes in. The first step is to relax....which may also take practice! You might be asking yourself “How am I going to relax? This {lake/ocean/river} is so big, the water is deep, etc.” This is where technique comes in. Taren (Last name is better) suggests trying this: When you enter the water, go in with the mindset of letting the motion of the ocean do the work for you. Just go with it by relaxing your body. Even though it's going to temporarily throw off your swim stroke a little bit, you’re better off to be loose and relaxed. Just work with the motion of the water instead of fighting it.

#2 - Meditation

Something else you may find helpful is meditation. It doesn’t need to be a traditional session where you sit cross-legged with your eyes closed. Rather, it’s all about getting out of your own head and breaking out of those cycles of self-talk and self-chatter, and learning how to snap your mind out of that cycle of anxiety, fear, stress, self-doubt, or any other negativity like creeps into your head and gets in your way of success.

#3 - A Personal Mantra

Another technique that many triathletes have found useful is a mantra. For example, if you swim three strokes before taking a breath, you can have a three-line mantra that you constantly repeat. As you take each stroke, you say a line in your head, for example: “I feel safe/I feel relaxed/I feel capable” (take a breath). Think of how you’d *like* to feel - and tell yourself to feel it.

#4 - Practice Makes Perfect

Another way to be ready for open water is to actually practice it when you get in the pool. You can practice “circle” swimming, where you and others share a lane, so you can be prepared for people swimming both in front of and behind you, just as they will in the actual race.

Now race day arrives. You’ve spent time learning to relax, doing some swim prep drills, and maybe having a few open water swim drills- then it’s go time. If you're still nervous, which a lot of people are in their first several races, the most important thing to remember is that this is normal, and you’re not the only one. Everyone brings his or her own anxieties and race-day butterflies to the event. Keep in mind that you are here to have fun- just go out and race your own race.
If you start your swim and you freak out and you need to stop swimming, just float on your back, let the crowd swim by, and resume your swim. Just take these few moments to relax, and when you have your space, resume your swim. You might actually go faster by letting everyone else go and staying out of that churn.

Being prepared for water conditions is also very important. In an ocean race, there could be waves that you can’t prepare for if you practice in a lake or pool.

But just like the other challenges, this can also be overcome. The number one trick, again, is to relax. Some swimmers find that “slap” that comes from being in very rough water to be unsettling. You can avoid that slap by actually pushing your face just a little bit deeper in the water and then turning your body more than you would typically to catch the breath. Since your face is deeper in the water you’ll need to have a bigger turn than you would in a pool, but because your face is deeper in the water, the waves are going to break over the top of your head, avoiding the rush in your face.

Also, try to time your breaths when you're at the top of a wave instead of when you're going down to avoid a wave crashing over your face. This will take practice, but definitely will get easier as you learn the “motion of the ocean.”

Finally, the last thing that'll help you get comfortable in open water is to immerse yourself in it. The more time that you're in open water the more comfortable you're going to be. It's going become less of a foreign place to be in. You're going to realize that your head didn't get to you the last time, the Loch Ness Monster didn't get you the last time, you did it the last time and you can do it again.

You will find success if you can build up your experience in the open water, and swimming in different bodies of water that you're not familiar with. However, if you can, do most of your training in a very familiar setting where you can see the bottom and you can see the shore. Swimming with a friend is always advised. You may want to join an open water swim club with guides in kayaks or SUPs who can provide additional safety and guidance.

Becoming comfortable in open water can take time, but with correct technique and practice, you can slowly but surely become a master at open water swimming.

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