Open Water Swimming

3 Big Fear Factors in Open Water Swimming

It’s no surprise that survey after survey shows that open water swimming is the biggest challenge for triathlon participants. In fact, it’s also the biggest factor that prevents some people from trying the sport in the first place.

We’re just not designed to be naturally comfortable in a horizontal position, with our oxygen being cut off 80% of the time, while our heart rate pushes it’s upper limit, where visibility is poor, we don’t know what creatures are lurking beneath us and we’re surrounded by people who seem to only care about themselves, treating a race as a matter of (their) life and (your) death.

But despite all this, it’s a challenge many of us can’t turn away from. We get nervous, anxious and excited at the possibility of seeing what we can do.

From all the conversations I’ve had with triathletes, I see there are 3 main factors that contribute to the mind games that undermine our ability to perform at our personal potential on any given day.

Distraction From What Really Matters

Far too many triathletes lose perspective of what is meaningful and important to their success. Too much energy is spent on comparison to others — what they look like, what wetsuit they have, how fit they look, how much taller/shorter/slimmer/bigger they are — and that’s just before even getting into the water. During the swim it’s a trap to put too much attention on where you are in the pack and why you’re not where you want to be.
While it’s fun and part of the sport to want to do well versus others, the truth is, it’s always best to put your time and energy into comparing you to your former self.

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Are you getting stronger, better, faster and enjoying it more than last month? Is your technique, your pull, your kick, your breathing improving? Are you managing your emotions and energy more effectively?

Comparing yourself to others, especially on race day does not make you faster. It takes your attention away from what really creates your performance: your technique, your mindset, your focus, your emotional state.

Take a few moments this week to get clear on what is just meaningless, ego-led distraction and what truly is needed to make you feel like you’re getting better…on your terms.

Psyching Yourself Out

Let’s get right to the truth: your thoughts create your emotions. If you are someone who gets really nervous, anxious, worried, or fearful about the open water (and yes, even very accomplished swimmers can feel that way), you’ve got to realise that you have more control and influence over your emotional state than you give yourself credit for in any given moment.

This can be confusing since the disempowering thoughts might be out of your awareness, in your subconscious thinking, buried there from many old past experiences. Some of those experiences might not even be triathlon or swimming related but are directly influencing how you feel before getting in the water.

But at the same time, I have never met anyone who wasn’t able to change their thought patterns and significantly shift their emotional state. Gone is the fear, frustration and confusion and in its place is a sense of calm, control and contentment. As a starting point, this doesn’t mean they are immediately faster (but probably are), but more importantly, they are now freed and empowered to work on improving their technique without the heavy weight of disempowering emotions. That is a victory worth celebrating!

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Psyching yourself out is a choice. Not doing that is a skill that anyone can develop.

It doesn’t mean you need to give yourself a motivational pep talk to “fight your fears” but you will find your fears often melt away when you turn your attention to more meaningful and specific performance cues — those precise aspects of your stroke that make the biggest difference and the dominating thoughts that create the optimal physical, mental and emotional state for you.

Make a note of what you need to start turning your attention to before and during your swims. Simply acknowledging those points, in writing, can have an immediate impact.

Imagining The Worst

It shouldn’t take long to realise that if you imagine the worst possible scenario (and there are some obvious candidates in open water swimming), you will start to feel anxious. The mind doesn’t distinguish very well between real and imagined.

But the solution isn’t just to imagine the best either. That can be a step too far even for your subconscious mind to accept. For example, I could visualise me powering by Andy Potts at the second buoy but that isn’t gonna happen and so it’s a waste of mental and emotional energy even going there. Unrealistic positive thinking is quickly dismissed by your mind which can fuel even more self-doubt, negative thinking and cloud all your thoughts.

Try imaging a neutral experience: you give a good effort, your technique is ok, you do get a bit bumped or splashed or obstructed, your heart rate is high and you do take in some water but you’re ok. And you do that with a sense of calm and control. Imagining neutral as a little positive and a little negative can be realistic enough to get your head above the ‘fear clouds’ and see that yes, indeed, you can handle this.

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I realise some of these points are “easier said than done” but don’t let that stop you from trying.

You can make the swim your friend and an enjoyable start to your race.

What is your biggest challenge with being comfortable or confident with open water swimming? Leave a comment below and we’ll answer your question in the next post.

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