The swim is the probably the greatest deterrent to triathlon. Most people are familiar with riding a bicycle and running, but when it comes to the swim they are in unfamiliar territory.
When I started training for my very first triathlon, I almost called it quits before I even began. The thought of getting in the water was intimidating and honestly I didn't know where to begin. I had not swam competitively since Middle School.
Monday morning and I'm in the pool. Just start. Anywhere. It gets better from here. These are the things I was telling myself. A friend and I took a few lessons from the high school swim coach. That was game changing for my stroke, my form, and my confidence.
Now here comes the open water.
My first open water swim was in a lake just outside Charleston, SC. Driving into the park the lake is on the left hand side and there was a big sign that said "IT IS UNLAWFUL TO FEED THE ALLIGATORS". Holy CRAP! Imagine seeing that sign before your first open water event!
I'm glad I picked this race as a first time open water swim however because it was SUMMER and the lake was warm. It was a Sprint Distance race so we're not talking a long time in the water. I had no idea what to expect and I had not really practiced sighting drills or anything like that. Yup, I was basically winging it.
The gun went off and the start was pretty much a CLUSTER FUCK. I don't remember getting kicked very hard but I do remember gulping water and having to fix my goggles. I think I swam about 150 yards extra because of lack of sighting skills. I don't know if I was flat out tired or just full of adrenaline but I started breathing every second stroke which is what I was trying to avoid. In practice I could swim 4 strokes then breath, but my heart was racing.
Once I got going, I started to calm down and sort of settle into a rhythm. I separated myself from the crowd a little and started looking for the first buoy. It came sooner than expected and as I made the R turn, I felt my hand touch something below me. My immediate thought was ALLIGATOR! Then my hand hit the sandy floor of the lake once again. So here I was thinking I am in about 30 feet of water and it was more like 2 or 3 feet. RELIEF!
I felt so odd at that point because I then realized I was WAY too worked up about this swim. From there I circled the second and third buoys and made my way to the SWIM OUT sign. T1 here I come.
My point is this: Sometimes we get so worked up over a swim that it sucks the life out of us and it doesn't really need to. We get so IN OUR OWN HEAD about it that it seems a lot more intimidating than it actually is.
Fast forward to my most recent open water race. I was competing for Team USA in Rotterdam Netherlands. I had been training in Texas all summer - if you don't know Texas this is 100 degree+ temperatures and water temperature of 84 degrees. I had been training in a pool with a few open water swims at a small lake in town. Rotterdam was COLD compared to what I was used to. It was 65 outside and the water temperature was somewhere around 62. I had only worn a wetsuit a couple of times previously and the conditions were rainy, chilly, and the water was choppy.
I made it just in time for the swim practice a few days before the actual race. We all got down on the dock and I knew I was in for a shock as I jumped in. It was the COLDEST water I had ever swam in. I felt my heart leave my chest and I was gasping for air for a few seconds. I started to ease into a pattern but I couldn't get comfortable and for the first 100 yards I couldn't put my face in the water! WTF? I flew over here from the US almost 5000 miles, hundreds of hours of training, sponsorships, well wishes and here I was scared to move forward in the water! I decided that if I could make it to the first buoy then I could rest and get my bearings about me. I was almost embarrassed to feel this way- I am a good swimmer with a strong stroke and confidence in the water. At least I thought...
Something came over me and I just had to finish this swim come hell or high water. By 400 yards I started doing freestyle every other stroke. I looked ahead and saw the SWIM OUT ramp and then I started to relax. The end was in sight.
My point is this: DO THE SWIM PRACTICE NO MATTER WHAT. I truly don't know how I would have reacted to this swim if I had not made myself do the warm up! I knew what to expect on race day and I learned how to handle it.
This was a BIG SCARY SWIM for me. I had never been in a great big harbor with huge cruise ships coming and going. I had never swam in dark choppy water in the rain before! This was NOT my comfort zone and not at all like Texas! I went into this thinking that I knew all about open water swims. I did NOT.
So here is my best advice to you if you are anxious about an upcoming open water swim.
1. Get the FACTs. Gather information. Learn all you can about the swim conditions from prior races. If you can physically go to the location then do so and scope it out. Talk to others who have done the swim. The best way to build confidence in an open water swim is to DO THE SWIM PRACTICE if one is offered. This is a game changer and a great way to overcome fears.
2. Visualizations. That's right. Visualize yourself completing the swim portion of your race with ease and confidence. You can do this throughout the day maybe for a few minutes in the morning and before bed. Do this while listening to relaxing music.
3. Affirmations. You can download positive affirmations from iTunes to your phone and listen while in the car or waiting in line etc. Sometimes I listen to affirmations before bed and fall asleep while listening. Your subconscious mind will internalize the positive statements!
4. Simulate race conditions as closely as possible in your training. If you have access to a lake or ocean, get a group together with plenty of kayaks and life vests and practice! Put on your wetsuit or whatever you will wear on race day and go out there and just do it.
5. Knowledge equals power. Like I said earlier, attend the swim practice offered by the event. If one is not offered, then scope out the swim ahead of time noting the buoys, entrances, and exits. Try to pick out a few objects to sight as you scope out the course.
6. Know how to calm yourself down. My mantra is this: "I am an excellent swimmer. I am wearing a wetsuit and it is impossible for me to drown. I have trained for this distance for many months and I am strong and confident."
If you have to slow down and breast stroke while you say these things to yourself then so be it. Picture yourself swimming in your regular pool or lake at a relaxed pace enjoying the scenery as you go along. You will settle into a rhythm and the anxiety will pass!
I hope these suggestions will help you at your next race. I've learned that even the scariest swims are not that scary if you gather your information and learn how to calm yourself down.