The biggest mistake that people new to the sport of triathlon make is to underestimate how different it is to swim in a lake with a group of people versus in a lane of the pool with one or two other people. You see these people at almost every triathlon. They are the ones who turn back soon after their swim begins or who need assistance from the life guards or who eventually complete the swim after spending a lot of time floating on their backs or swimming with their heads out of the water with a terrified look in their eyes. This is completely unnecessary. One or two practice swims in the open water can dramatically transform how a person reacts to the novelty of a mass start triathlon swim.
Here are some of surprises the open water swim has in store for a first timer:
· It’s dark.
· You can’t touch the bottom soon after starting to swim.
· It’s challenging to swim in a straight line.
· You get breathless due to heightened anxiety and colder water temperatures.
· Sometimes you get a mouthful of water instead of air when you go to breathe because the water is a bit choppy.
You can deal with these factors with a little practice. The first two are givens—lakes are dark and deep, but that doesn’t matter. There is nothing under the water that you need to see in order to be able to navigate the swim course, and you don’t need to touch the bottom to be able to swim. Instead you navigate by swimming towards the swim buoys that mark the swim course. You can do this by peeking forward occasionally while swimming, looking for the next buoy or for another landmark behind the buoy. This is referred to as “sighting”, and is what helps to keep you swimming somewhat in a straight line and on the course.
Breathlessness is related to anxiety and a panicky type of swim stroke, and can be exasperated by cold water. While you cannot control the water temperature, you can work on controlling anxiety and maintaining good swim form.
During practice swims in open water, consciously inhale bringing the air deep into your lungs and then slowly and completely exhale the air into the water. Focus on achieving long, rhythmic swim strokes versus short, frantic ones. The “catch up drill” is a good approach for elongating your stroke as it exaggerates a hesitation between strokes. During the catch up drill, swim your regular freestyle stroke but wait until you touch one hand on the other before beginning your next stroke. This means for a moment, both your arms will be extended in front of you. Incorporate a minute or two of catch up drill into your open water swim if you are feeling breathless. It’s less taxing than regular freestyle plus helps to eradicate a short, panicky swim stroke. If you cannot lessen your anxiety while swimming, temporarily resort to a “panic stroke”, the stroke that you will use to help you relax. Breast stroke, side stroke, and back float with sculling are popular panic strokes because they allow you to get your face out of the water and breathe whenever you want. As soon as you start to feel calm, switch to freestyle stroke, even bargaining with yourself that you will do 25 strokes of freestyle before resorting to your panic stroke again.
Finally if a mouthful of water causes you to begin coughing, slow down, take a gulp of the water to try to wash down what is in your throat (I know lake water is gross but it beats choking), and switch to the catch up drill or your panic stroke for a minute or so in order to relax. Then proceed with your swimming. You may need to make adjustments to minimize the chances of taking in more water. Breathe to the other side if it’s waves or a splashy swimmer that is causing you to take in water. Roll your body a little more on its side when you are going to take a breath which should get your mouth closer to the surface, making it easier to reach for the breath.
In addition to the open water swim practice, incorporate mental training into your open water swim preparation. Come up with a brief phrase for how you want to view yourself as a swimmer. (“I am a strong, confident swimmer” is the phrase that works for me). Repeat the phrase while you are stuck in traffic, when you swim laps at the pool, as you cook dinner, etc. The more you repeat it, the sooner your brain will believe it.
Practice the open water swim segment for your triathlon in the comfort of your own home by visualizing it. Imagine lining up with the other people in your swim wave. Hear the race director signal the start of your swim wave. Feel the cold water envelope your body as you make your first few strokes. Accept the darkness and depth of your swim environment as you focus on your deep breathing and long, swim strokes. Imagine occasionally having trouble sighting the buoy because of the hordes of swimmers and rough water, but being patient knowing that the next time you take a peek you will see the buoy a little closer than it was the last time you looked. Stay calm and patient while boxed in by other swimmers knowing that you will find space for swimming soon. During your visualization, steadily make your way through the swim segment all along thinking, “I am doing a triathlon!”.
The swim segment of your triathlon does not have to be dark and scary. You have the ability to make the swim segment a fun and exhilarating start to your triathlon. All it takes is a little practice and some positive thinking.