For many triathletes, the most dreaded part of the race is swim. I can understand that. It’s a scary thing to keep your head in the water, pausing only to put your nose and mouth in the air to breathe periodically. It seems that most multi-sport events occur in open water environments, too, so we lose that security of with swimming in a clear pool with lane lines, walls every 25 yards, and controlled numbers of fellow swimmers.
I have an advantage that not all triathletes have—I grew up on a lake in Massachusetts. I had access to open water all the time. I played in the mud, got tangled in weeds, and adjusted to the unfamiliarity of murky fresh water. I’m not afraid of open water, but my first open water swim was still a nightmare. I attended a swim clinic in Virginia in the Potomac River and despite the wonderful instructional clinic that preceded the swim, I had a meltdown when I was in the water with a large group of swimmers. I was bumped, elbowed, kicked. I hadn’t anticipated how much my heart rate would go up without a warm-up and walls to hug while I adjusted. I suddenly felt completely out of place and, as I watched the other swimmers who seemingly had no problems at all, I panicked. I didn’t understand what was happening, because here I was someone who wasn’t afraid of open water and yet I was having a full on panic attack.
It’s been over five years since that first open water swim clinic. I have stuck with triathlons and open water swimming, and even learned to appreciate and enjoy it. (Sometimes to my detriment, if the race is in a pretty location I start to look at the scenery when I swim and forget I’m in a race!) I still panic from time to time, but it is shorter, fleeting, and ultimately I overcome it.
If open water swims are available in your area, take advantage of them! Those of us reading this in the Washington DC area of very lucky to have multiple opportunities for organized swims with lifeguards in kayaks and safety checks in our area. Check with local triathlon teams to see if they have anything organized you can participate in. Sometimes these teams will let non-team members participate for a fee, or you can just join a team and reap all the benefits. I thought I could share what I did to figure out how to prepare for open water swimming, especially when access to open water isn’t readily available.
1) Practice drills in the pool whenever possible. One of the things that really freaked me out in open water was the feeling of not being able to see. I started swimming laps with my eyes closed, opening them only when I raised my eyes above the surface to sight. At first I could only do this for a few strokes, but after practicing I was able to extend the time longer and longer. This gave me greater comfort in open water, and it improved my sighting, as well.
2) Swim long distances in the pool. In open water swimming we don’t have walls to hang onto between sets to rest. Practice swimming without stopping so that you are familiar with how that will feel during a race.
3) Get together with training buddies and practice swimming in the pool in a pack. It’s important to know what it feels like to be bumped and elbowed. When we swim laps normally it feels like a solitary sport, but in triathlons it is a contact sport. Trust me, no one wants to drown you, but bumping is inevitable with large groups. You need to experience it so that it’s more familiar when it happens during the race.
4) Know your warm-up point. A perfect athlete would warm up properly before a race so that when they started swimming their body was adjusted to the water and their cardiovascular system was prepped for the race… but I’m not a perfect athlete. I don’t think I’ve ever warmed up before a race, I just consider the earlier parts my warm up. This means that I have to be cognizant of how long it actually takes for me to warm up, take it easy for that length of time, and understand that breathing may feel more labored until that happens. In a marathon, that’s about 2-3 miles into the race. In a triathlon, it’s usually a few hundred yards of swimming. I make sure to scope out the swim course before getting in the water and I pick a buoy that is a 300-400 yards out, mentally making a note “That is when it will stop feeling hard.” As I swim I’m able to tell myself to just hold it together until that buoy, because that’s when I will hit my groove.
Don’t beat yourself up if you do have to stop and make use of a kayaker during a race. I know plenty of triathletes who have done this and still had successful races—including Ironman finishers. Don’t beat yourself up if you have to stop and roll onto your back.