Open water swimming is a fundamental part of triathlon, but for many athletes, the thought of swimming in open water can trigger feelings of anxiety and fear.
This type of anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, from difficulty breathing to an overwhelming sense of panic.
If you’re experiencing open water swimming anxiety, you are not alone. It’s a common issue that affects many triathletes, regardless of their experience level. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to overcome this challenge and develop the confidence and skills necessary to tackle open water swims with ease.
In this article, we will explore some practical strategies to help you overcome open water swimming anxiety and make the most of your triathlon experience.
- Understand the Root of your Anxiety
- Gradual Exposure
- Breathing Techniques
- Find a Buddy or Club
- Get the Right Gear
- Practice in Similar Conditions
- Warm up well before your Swim
- Get Comfortable with Discomfort
- Seek Help from a Coach
- Conclusion: Overcoming Open Water Swimming Anxiety
- FAQ: Overcoming Open Water Swimming Anxiety
- Open Water Swimming: The Role of Triathlon Coaches
Understand the Root of your Anxiety
Open water swimming anxiety can stem from a variety of factors, such as fear of the unknown, fear of drowning, fear of marine life, or past negative experiences. It’s a good idea to identify the underlying cause of your anxiety to better address it.
Was it something in your childhood? Did something happen to you or someone you know in your past that has made you fear open water?
Do you fear murky water and that you can’t see the bottom? Is the water too clear and you can see everything? Is the water temperature and the sensation of getting in a worry for you?
Are you worried about disorientation? Getting your swim bearings in open water can take some time. Not only is there an absence of pool comforts like floating lane markers and visual cues on the pool bottom, but there is also the unpredictability that comes with a natural body of water — currents, chop, swell etc.
Gradually increase your exposure to open water swimming to build confidence and familiarity. Start by swimming in calm, shallow water and slowly progress to deeper, choppier water. This is a great psych technique and is called “Exposure therapy” used by therapists to help people overcome fears and anxieties by breaking the pattern of fear and avoidance. It works by exposing you to a stimulus that causes fear in a safe environment.
For open water you can do this by firstly walking out to knee deep and controlling your breathing. Get used to the temperature of the water and environment, including the wildlife, the smells, the breeze, and other water users. The next time go a bit deeper but always make sure you are in a safe area with a swim buddy or two.
Take time to familiarize yourself with the area. If there is a lifeguard on duty, ask about the best and safest areas to swim and about plants and wildlife in the water. If not, simply scope out the area yourself identifying good entry and exit points. If possible, wade into shallow waters to observe water clarity and feel the water temperature. In addition, join open water swimming forums or Facebook groups and ask for advice and guidance on specific beaches, lakes, and rivers that are safe to swim in.
Focusing on your breathing can help you calm down and relax. Try different breathing techniques such as taking deep breaths before entering the water or exhaling slowly under the water to reduce anxiety. Types of breathing to reduce anxiety include diaphragmatic breathing and my favorite Box Breathing.
Visualize yourself successfully completing the swim and crossing the finish line. Visualization techniques can help you build confidence and create a positive mindset.
Find a Buddy or Club
Finding a training partner or group can help alleviate anxiety by providing a sense of safety and support.
When competing, there are always safety officials and support personnel around, but when heading into open water to train, take at least one person — either a fellow swimmer or just someone who can act as a spotter. Alternatively, consider joining a swim or tri-club. Fellow members will be happy to share tips and offer swim companionship, support, and guidance.
Get the Right Gear
Make sure you have the appropriate equipment and safety gear for open water swimming, such as a wetsuit (learn more about the best wetsuits for swimming) or buoyancy aid, to help you feel more secure in the water.
The key to comfort, safety and performance is wearing the right kit while open water swimming. This is largely determined by water temperature.
In colder waters, make sure you wear a proper-fitting swimming wetsuit of suitable thickness. It will keep your body temperature at safe levels, add buoyancy, reduce drag, and protect you against sharp objects and other water users.
Durable, well-fitting goggles are also a must that are designed for open water. Open water swimming goggles can have tinted lens’s that help with sun glare. Some swimmers prefer goggles with a larger field of vision so they can see better.
I like the Zoggs Predator flex goggles with lens’s that adjust to the light conditions and go darker if the sun is really bright. I also use Cressi anti-fog spray every time I swim to ensure the lens is clear and I can see where I’m going. Cressi anti-fog is reef safe so won’t pollute where you swim like other products.
Always use a brightly coloured swim hat and tow float so you can be seen in the water. If you do need a rest or need to re-set your breathing, then you can use your tow float to rest on. Another great safety device is the Restube. This is a self-inflating swim float that you wear when swimming and when you need to signal for help or need an device to rest on you simply tug the cord and it inflates in a second. I have tried one and you don’t notice when you are swimming but when you need it, it’s there.
If you do fear the cold water, then you can get neoprene swim caps to keep you head warm and neoprene gloves and boots.
Some coastal locations may have jellyfish at certain times of the year and understandably a lot of triathletes and swimmers fear getting stung. There are some products like Safe Sea which protect you from jellyfish and the sun.
Always ensure you are fueled well for your swim so that you can complete the swimming session like any other training session.
Proper nutrition and hydration are essential for both physical and mental performance during open water swimming. You should make sure you are properly fueled and hydrated before and during swims and pay attention to how different foods and drinks affect your performance and anxiety levels.
Practice in Similar Conditions
Practice in conditions that are similar to your race environment, such as swimming in the same type of water (saltwater vs freshwater), and the same temperature.
Swimming outside of the controlled pool environment typically requires triathletes and open water swimmers to modify their technique to compete with fluid conditions like chop, wind, and currents. We recommend adopting a straight arm, punchier style with a quicker stroke turnover (cadence) to compete with the natural forces at play. With good body rotation and a straighter arm recovery you can bring your arm over the waves and water chop. This should deliver better stability and make you feel like you are in control of the situation.
Warm up well before your Swim
A warm-up is specifically designed to prepare the body and mind for the activity ahead. A couple of arm swings and jumps won’t be enough.
By doing a proper warm-up (and one in the water if you can get in), you can significantly reduce your anxiety at the start of a race or training session. That could be anything from 7-15 minutes of swimming, to utilizing bands and cords at the edge of the water if you can’t get into the water.
You should practice this warm-up before every swim session, not just the one before your race. This will help ensure you are warmed up, you know how much time you need, and calm you down before the race as there will be a sense of familiarity and routine. This will build your pre-swim ritual and your mind and body will thank you.
Get Comfortable with Discomfort
Commit to regular open water swimming training sessions to gain familiarity with this type of swim. Start slowly, follow the steps above and acknowledge the experience will be vastly different from a pool. By managing your expectations this way, you can eventually overcome the discomfort associated with open water swimming and adequately prepare your body and mind for swimming in an open water swimming race or a triathlon leg.
Rest assured, triathletes of all experience levels as well as open water swimmers, experience apprehension at one time or another. However, once you can mentally breakthrough your fears, the experience will be rewarding. Trust in your ability and plunge into that lake, ocean, or river!
Seek Help from a Coach
If anxiety is severely impacting your performance, consider seeking professional help from a coach, sports psychologist, or therapist.
Remember, overcoming open water swimming anxiety takes time and practice, so be patient with yourself and celebrate small victories along the way.
Conclusion: Overcoming Open Water Swimming Anxiety
Overcoming open water swimming anxiety is a journey that requires patience, persistence, and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone.
By identifying the root of your anxiety, gradually exposing yourself to open water swimming, utilizing breathing techniques and visualization, finding a training buddy, equipping yourself with appropriate gear, practicing in similar conditions, and seeking help, when necessary, you can build the confidence and skills necessary to succeed in your triathlon goals.
Remember, the process may not be easy, but the rewards are well worth it. With dedication and effort, you can overcome open water swimming anxiety and enjoy the thrill and accomplishment of completing an open water swim in a triathlon.
FAQ: Overcoming Open Water Swimming Anxiety
Open water swimming anxiety is a common issue that affects many triathletes, regardless of their experience level.
Open water swimming anxiety can stem from a variety of factors, such as fear of the unknown, fear of drowning, fear of marine life, or past negative experiences.
Yes, with patience, persistence, and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone, open water swimming anxiety can be overcome.
Yes, focusing on your breathing can help you calm down and relax. Try different breathing techniques such as taking deep breaths before entering the water or exhaling slowly under the water to reduce anxiety.
If anxiety is severely impacting your performance, consider seeking professional help from a coach, sports psychologist, or therapist.
Yes, practicing in conditions that are similar to the race environment, such as swimming in the same type of water (saltwater vs freshwater), and the same temperature can help you build confidence and familiarity.
- Hunt, C. J., Tillery, R., & Kauffman, D. (2013). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for open water swimming anxiety. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 16(5), 456–460.
- Callow, N., Smith, M. J., Hardy, L., & Arthur, C. A. (2009). Hardy, L., & Arthur, C. A. (2009). The relationship between pre-competition imagery and performance in competitive swimming. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 40(2), 189-204.
- Exposure Therapy: https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy#:~:text=In%20vivo%20exposure%3A%20Directly%20facing,in%20front%20of%20an%20audience.
Open Water Swimming: The Role of Triathlon Coaches
Triathlon coaches can play a crucial role in helping their athletes overcome open water swimming anxiety. Coaches are not just there to help you improve your times but can help with areas you are finding challenging – like open water swimming. Here are some of the areas where a coach can help you with your open water swimming a race preparation.
Provide Education and Training
Coaches can help educate their athletes on the potential causes of open water swimming anxiety, such as fear of drowning, lack of visibility, and water temperature. They can also provide specific training to help athletes improve their skills and confidence in the water.
Encourage Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing athletes to the situations that trigger their anxiety, such as swimming in open water. Coaches can encourage their athletes to gradually increase their exposure to open water swimming and provide support and guidance throughout the process.
Offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors. Coaches can provide guidance on CBT techniques that athletes can use to manage their anxiety, such as reframing negative thoughts and using relaxation techniques.
Provide Support and Encouragement
Coaches can offer emotional support and encouragement to their athletes, helping them build confidence and overcome their anxiety. They can also create a supportive team environment, where athletes can encourage and motivate each other.
Coaches can emphasize safety during open water swimming, which can help reduce anxiety. This can include ensuring that athletes are properly equipped and providing guidance on swimming techniques that can help them stay safe in open water.