Fear is a factor for many triathletes during an open water swim. It’s natural to feel nervous about the swim, especially if you feel it’s not your strongest discipline. Even if you consider yourself to be a strong swimmer, sometimes thinking about the length of the swim, having to deal with a mass start, or having people swim on top of and all around you, can be cause for a little anxiety. If the thought of the open water swim gets your heart racing, you’re not alone. Many people feel butterflies when they think about all of the what-ifs that come with the swim:
- What if a water creature touches me?
- What if I get kicked in the face?
- What if I lose my goggles?
- What if I get tired and can’t make it?
That feeling of anxiety is meant to help you hone in your focus and prepare for the very thing you feel threatened by. If anxiety has done its job effectively, you will seek to alleviate your feelings of anxiety by doing what it takes to feel more prepared so you feel more confident in your ability to meet the challenge. For some athletes, that anxiety becomes overwhelming and even debilitating and for many people, the thought of the open water swim keeps them away from triathlon altogether. Those dreaded “what-ifs” and the corresponding anxiety that comes with them cause you to burn through a tremendous amount of emotional, mental, and physical energy before your event even begins. Here are some tips to get to the start of your triathlon mentally ready for the swim:
Work on your swim skills
– If you put yourself in the category of “not a strong swimmer”, then you can gain more confidence by improving your swimming. The better you feel about your swim skills, the more confident you will be in the water. Get a swim coach. Go to open water swim clinics. Be deliberate about working on your skills and getting more comfortable in the water.
Practice in open water
You wouldn’t show up to your triathlon only having ridden your bike three times leading up to the event – and if you did – you would be pretty nervous about the bike. That same idea is also true for the swim. Take family vacations somewhere with access to open water. Find a kayaking friend to go out for an open water excursion. Find an open water swim group. The more you practice swimming in the open water, the more confident you will be.
Take opportunities to actually practice handling the potential challenges you will face during the swim. If you take the opportunity to experience these situations before your race you remove the anxiety that comes from experiencing something for the first time. Think about your own list of “what-ifs” and figure out ways to go out and practice them. Here are a few examples:
- If you’re nervous about having people swim close to you – go out with some friends or teammates you trust and practice keeping your cool while they swim all around you.
- If you’re hesitant about swimming in choppy water – go out and swim in choppy water (of course – be sure you go with others and make sure the conditions are safe for swimming) or go to your local gym and swim laps during the water aerobics class. (You’d be surprised at how choppy the water gets when there are 20 people jumping around in it!)
- If you’re concerned about losing your goggles, take your goggles off in the water and practice putting them back on.
- If you’re worried you’ll get tired during the swim, practice rolling onto your back to swim a few backstrokes and then rolling back over and getting started again. This is also a great way to mentally re-group if you find yourself starting to feel a little nervous as you’re swimming.
Choose your focus
Where does your focus need to be during the swim in order to feel calm, confident, and in control? Oftentimes the factors that make us feel anxious are things that are out of our control. When you choose to focus on the factors that are in your control it reduces anxiety and helps you feel more calm and confident. You need to choose your focus before you get in the water. Planning for where you want your focus to be helps you to be successful on race day. Counting strokes or coming up with a cue word, a phrase, or even an image can help you to keep you focused on feeling calm and confident and moving forward.
When it comes to race day confidence, focus, and success – your mental preparation is just as important as your physical preparation. If you find that you are feeling a little apprehensive about your upcoming swim, take the time to work on your confidence and mentally prepare for your swim and you’ll be ready to sign up for your next race before you hit land.
Carrie Cheadle, M.A., CC-AASP is an expert Mental Skills Coach and you can find out more about Mental Skills Training and sign up for her email list and get the free e-book Inspired: Monthly Motivation for Athletes by checking out her website at www.carriecheadle.com.