Advice from Experts

Here’s a great article on conquering fears of Open Water Swimming. Text below, link here.

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Fear of Open Water Swimming – What is the cause?

Determine an Intervention Strategy for a Fear of Open Water Swimming

From , Guide

Apr 19 2011

What happens when you start a triathlon or open water swimming race, with an unprecedented sea swell, chop, cooler than expected water, and about 800 other swimmers trying to clamber on top of you to get to the swim finish before you? How do you deal with those open water swimming distractions?

When I was back in Perth we had access to some of the best beaches for opwn water swimming I have ever come across, which meant open water swimming was that much more inspiring (despite the shark risk). The average annual water temp. is 18 degrees C (about 65 degrees F, which to some of you guys might sound like a bath but still cool enough for wetsuits) and the water clarity is normally excellent. Despite all these positives though, a couple of the ladies I used to coach had suffered for years with an innate fear of the ocean and open water swimming.

When I first met both the girls they could just about complete a 200m freestyle swim in the pool, taking about 5-minutes. Over the course of a winter we worked to develop their technique and specific fitness to a point where one was able to swim 1000m in 18:50 and the other in 20:35. A massive step forward and both were looking forward to a good season’s racing. However, come to race day, despite doing some basic familiarity sessions for open water swimming in the lead up to the race, disaster struck.

One girl ended up doing head-up breaststroke and unable to put her face back in the water after being bashed at the start and swallowing loads of water and came out of the 1000m swim in just under 30 minutes, hysterical in the process, unable to go onto the bike leg. The other only made it to the first 150m marker before feeling she was totally out of her depth (her thoughts) and couldn’t go any further. She returned in a rescue canoe.

Very disappointing for all concerned. As their coach, it was up to me to develop an intervention strategy to help. It was my first ever experience with how working on your technique for 6 months in the pool is all well and good, but if things fall apart psychologically, then all the pool time could be viewed as wasted, at least in this open water swimming race situation. Of course by intervening, we were able to then go on and eventually utilise this fitness and technique at a later date.

What happens when you start a triathlon or open water swimming race, with an unprecedented sea swell, chop, cooler than expected water, and about 800 other swimmers trying to clamber on top of you to get to the swim finish before you? How do you deal with those distractions?

Let’s look at the psychology behind what people experience when presented with something that is new and uncomfortable for them. If we look at how people focus and concentrate when it comes to any aspect of sport, we can break this down into Internal Focus and External Focus. Sounds simple! Some people prefer to concentrate on how they’re feeling physically, what their heart rate is, how their breathing is going, etc. (INTERNAL), whereas others will prefer to observe what’s going on around them, looking at the others swimming around them and what the environmental factors (like water temperature, swell, sunlight, visibility, etc.) are doing (EXTERNAL).

If you think about it, when you’re training in the pool, the majority of the time you will be internally focused. You will be thinking about your form and technique, and how your breathing is going, etc.

Why are you able to do this? Because you’re in a very stable, unchanging environment. You can see where you’re going, there’s always a black line underneath you, and there’s always a relatively stable flow of other people swimming past and around you. There are very few distractions.

I know this is very basic advice, but by choosing one of the aspects that you have been working on in the pool (it might to blowing out in the water or counting the rhythm of your stroke) and concentrate solely on this to the point of consciously shutting out the other distractions around you as best you can, you should feel a little more comfortable. Here’s an example:

With one of the ladies above, her biggest fear and concern was that every time she went to take a breath she would cop a mouth full of water from one of the other swimmers inadvertently splashing her. This forced her to ‘skip’ a breath, leading to huge panic. What did we do to prepare for this? In our practice sessions we would go down to the beach and I would jump in the water with her and ‘be the bad guy’ by splashing her directly in the face every time she took a breath to her right side. As she knew I wasn’t going to hurt her (and believe it or not very few people in triathlon intentionally make your life uncomfortable in the OW anyway), she began to see it as more of a funny experience and one that wasn’t quite as daunting. When it came to her next race (a Half Ironman as it happened!), she actually consciously associated our training sessions with the splashes she received in the 1.9km swim and found them to be amusing and actually ‘enjoyable’ knowing that she had received far worse from me knocking her around, pulling on her legs, rolling over her back (whilst swimming) etc. She came out of the water in 45 mins with a big smile on her face, much to my relief!

So get someone who you feel comfortable with to practice these things with you in open water. If you feel that murkiness or poor visibility is a factor (I also suffer from this and still have panic attacks myself every now and again ), why not try swimming in your pool with your eyes shut (watch out for others in the pool and the ends of the lane though!). Give it a go, I do it quite often with my squads as an exercise in how stable and balanced you are in the water and how straight you are able to swim without your usual peripheral awareness about you. It’s quite good fun, trust me, just don’t hit anything!!!

I personally used to be freaked out by open water swimming, and despite swimming competitively since I was 7 years old, I never once ventured into the open water until a family trip to France when I was 16 and built up the courage to put my head under the water in a river where we were white water rafting. I felt very uncomfortable at first but it was the one significant thing that I’ve ever done which prompted me to have the courage to take up triathlon a year later. I’ve never looked back and still have some funny phobias every now and again (Lake Windermere and Llyn Padarn still freak me out!) but then they do tend to make me swim faster as a result!



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