Triathlon might be twice as popular if it wasn’t for the swim. Athletes who think nothing of rising before the sun to run ten miles uphill, or crank out a century every weekend, often stand at waters edge quivering in their swim caps (or secretly hoping for a cancelled swim). The most important thing you can do to mitigate open water anxiety is to be thoroughly prepared for the swim. Train, practice in open water, know your equipment, and know what to expect on race day.
What follows are three very simple activities that can further dampen open water anxiety. These are not substitutes for proper training, but in conjunction with proper physical preparation, these three techniques can help with the over stimulated mind that many triathletes experience at the starting gun.
First thing is to get wet! Triathlons are becoming notorious for not allowing swim warm-ups, and there is nothing to do about that, but you can usually get wet before the swim start. This will largely mitigate the physical shock to the system that comes from jumping into cold (or even cool) water. Fill your swim cap up with water before you put it on. Walk to the waters edge and thoroughly splash yourself. Get some water in your wetsuit. It’s ok if these activities are a bit shocking. In fact, they should be shocking. Accept some shock now, and there will be less to distract you later. The excitement and confusion of the swim start, combined with the shock of chilly water, has been the undoing of many otherwise prepared athletes.
The next one is simple…. deep breaths can be magical. After you have gotten wet and you are standing or treading water awaiting the start, take five to ten very deep breaths. The breathing alone can calm you, or you can add in some visualization to enhance the effect. As you breathe in, visualize gathering up every negative thought about what could happen… how unprepared you are, how much you dislike swimming, etc.… gather those thoughts up as a physical ball in your chest. Then visualize breathing them out with every long and thorough exhale. It’s simple and remarkably effective.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” - Nelson Mandela
In other words, it is ok to be a little afraid, expected even. As rational beings we can think our way through our irrational fears. The way to do this is to logically examine our irrational fears, and condense the results of that examination into easily regurgitated mantras… “Swimming slow is not the same as drowning.” “Sharks don’t live in lakes.” “Flesh floats.” Whatever you need to calm yourself. Whatever your specific unfounded fear, there is a simple and memorable mantra that can lead you back to rationality. Write it out months before your race and memorize it.
Remember, set yourself up for success by training properly, be familiar with open water, practice in your wetsuit, and understand the race venue. Once you have checked those boxes, these three techniques can be the icing on the successful swim cake. Get wet, take deep breaths, and recognize and work through irrational fear with your rational mind.