Overcoming Fears of Open Water Swimming

Living in Idaho, we have a solid 9 months of cold weather.  That means unless you have lots of money and/or lots of time to spend in the mountains on the slopes (not me), you tend to spend most of the winter drudging through various indoor exercises.  By the time summer finally rolls around I know I'm itching to ditch the gym and the pool workouts in search of fresh air and sunshine anywhere I can get it!  Since Valerie and I began training for triathlons last year, I've had the opportunity to explore new adventures in the outdoors and also face a few lingering fears.  

Fears?  Oh yes, fears.  I'm not just talking about the fears of competition. ie. "Am I good enough?" "Will I come in dead last?"  "Do I have what it takes to finish?" "Do I look as ridiculous as I feel?".  I'm referring to the fears found in the WATER!!

Okay, okay.  I KNOW!  Yes, logically, I do realize there aren't any huge fish aka sharks in Rigby Lake that are going to hunt me down and eat me.  Of course, logically, I know that the green, slimy things brushing against my hands are only weeds and not some unseen monster lurking in wait to gobble me up.  And, yes, I'm fully aware that logically, if I can swim in the shallow water just fine, I can also swim in water that is 25+ feet deep and yes, I will indeed survive the 60 degree water temps.  Yet, for some reason, when it's time to go from pool to lake, I hesitate.  Every. Single. Time.

Valerie and I recently attended an Open Water Swim Clinic put on by Michael Hays at Personal Best Performance Sports.  He shared some great suggestions for becoming more comfortable in the water.  He was, of course, focusing on helping us get prepped for triathlon swims but these tips certainly can apply to anyone getting ready to face their fears of open water swimming.


Never Swim Alone

Even the most experienced swimmers should always bring a  buddy with them and a phone.  If that buddy isn't up for a swim, have them watch from shore.  It's always best to practice with a safety net.


Wear a Wetsuit

Unless you live in some amazing tropical climate (yes, I know many of our participants do and I'm SO jealous!), you're likely to find yourself swimming in some fairly fridgid waters of around 60 degrees.  Whether full sleeve or sleeveless, wetsuits not only provide some protection from the chill but also the beauty of bouyancy!  It's like an extra little boost to help keep you floating a bit higher in the water.  Don't have a wetsuit?  Check your local bike, run and triathlon shops.  Many of them will rent them out.


Acclimate to the Water Temperature

Before heading out for a swim workout or an event walk out into the water, sit down and take it.  Yes, you will be cold.  Yes, you will feel that horrible little icicle trickle of water on your lower back where the zipper starts on your wetsuit and yes, you will may squeal and gasp like a little girl when the water finds it's way into the neckline and down the front of your wetsuit, BUT in just a few minutes you will be totally fine and ready to ease into your warmup swim.  



If you are not getting enough air, you're not going to be doing anything else.  Your form and speed will no longer matter so slow down and be sure your breath stroke is long enough to fill your lungs adequately.


It's Okay to Go Slow

If you're gasping for breath, you're probably already going too fast and it's time to slow down and review your breathing.  If you're giving yourself plenty of air and you're still gasping for breath then see the next tip. 


Reign in the Anxiety

There is a "mental" aspect to every sport.  It's all about becoming comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.  The source of anxiety in open water swimming all depends on the person swimming.  Maybe you're like me and worry that creatures lurk under the dark water or that the weeds are going to get you.  Seriously, I'm like a child.  Maybe you're worried that the water will be too cold or that you don't swim fast enough so you worry and fret and BAM anxiety... and here comes the oxygen deprivation.  It's time to calm down.



Yep.  That's exactly what I said.  For me, this is the most valuable "mental skill" for overcoming my fears when entering open water.  When it's time to enter the bitter cold water I PRETEND I'm tough enough to take it.  I PRETEND that I'm not as cold as I am.  Then when I'm off and swimming, I PRETEND that fish do not live in the lake.  (Yes, I realize I am lying to myself, but it works)  I PRETEND that weeds don't bother me (okay, I'm totally still working on this one, they definitely bother me, eww!).  I PRETEND that I'm brave enough to swim in deep water.  If that doesn't work then I PRETEND that I'm swimming in shallow water (another lie?  Yes, yes it is).  I PRETEND that I belong with the other swimmers no matter how slow I may swim.  

You may have heard this "pretending" called faking it 'til you make it, self-fulfilling prophecy or even the law of attraction but whatever it is that you call it, it can work.  By telling yourself you've got it in you to get in that water and swim, you gain the confidence to try.  Eventually you will realize that you really DO have it in you and you'll be swimming!  Your mind is a powerful tool.  Whatever it is that you think, you will come to believe and will eventually do!  So, BELIEVE you are capable and you will be!

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