Open water swimming season will be here before we know it. In some locations in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s already here (or it never left ;) ). Over the years, I have worked with so many athletes who have had anxiety about open water swimming. It is my hope that this article can share some tips to make you feel more comfortable and confident when swimming, especially when swimming in open water.
There are many things that may cause athletes to feel anxiety about open water swimming:
A human’s requirement to breathe oxygen from air
Related: A human’s inability to breathe water
Living things (to include fish, plants, seaweed, jellyfish, dolphins, sharks, etc.)
The depth of the water
The visibility in the water
Congestion in the water (especially in mass swim starts or races)
Waves, currents, or choppy conditions in the water
While the above list is by no means a complete list of the reasons why people may fear the water, you can get the gist. As humans, we evolved to live on land. We are bipedal; to be horizontal (the position required to swim) in water (an element we cannot actually survive long-term in) is a big ask of our land and air-loving species. A certain part of our brain (specifically the amygdala) has a job to keep us alive. It does this by detecting risk and taking over other parts of our brain when it perceives a risky situation by telling us not to do the thing that it thinks is dangerous. This is literally how we are wired, so it’s very reasonable that some humans are fearful when it comes to swimming.
I’m here this week with good news: It IS possible to build confidence and swim with strength. The first starts with some level of exposure to water.
Start at YOUR Beginning
Start where you are. You may be someone who is totally comfortable in the water, and can hop right in. Or, you may be someone who needs to warm-up to the idea.
For those athletes who are very scared of the water, just getting in and standing in it can be a great starting point. As you see that you can remain in the water successfully, you can build from there - going in deeper, perhaps floating on your back, and finally splashing water on your face or putting your face in the water when you are firmly rooted (standing) on safe land.
If you are someone who has panicked while swimming in the past or who has had a long-standing fear of the water, establishing a “go-to” - a behavior or habit that you know you can immediately implement when you start to feel that anxiety - is really, really important.
I talk to athletes often about thinking about their space in the water as a “cocoon of comfort”. Your body and the water immediately around you make up this cocoon, and it can mentally become a safe space since you can both create and control it.
One suggestion: If you start to feel anxiety, either shift so you are upright (i.e. treading water) with your head/face completely out of the water, or flip over completely onto your back and float. Either way, you will be exposing your face to the air, which will enable you to breathe more freely.
Once you are in this safe position, take deep breaths. Count to four as you inhale, and count to four as you exhale. By diverting your attention to your breath, it can distract you from the panic or anxiety you recently felt.
Once you feel calmer (and hopefully safer!), go back to a horizontal swimming position and resume swimming at a really easy exertion level where you are focusing on getting a complete pull with your arms through the water.
Not fully exhaling in the water is one of the most common things that I observe swimmers doing that causes them to feel like they cannot breathe.
If you do not completely empty your lungs, you cannot completely fill your lungs with air/oxygen when you take a breath. Imagine that your lungs are like a cup of water: If the glass is half full, you can only fill the cup up by 50%. If the glass is empty, you can fill it 100%.
The same is true of your lungs; if you do not completely exhale and empty them, you cannot get as much air into them. As a result, not as much oxygen actually gets transferred to your bloodstream/working muscles, and the brain starts to panic, perceiving that it is unable to get what it needs to keep you alive.
When your face is in the water, focus on completely exhaling/emptying your lungs. This way, when you go to breathe, you have full capacity to get as much air/oxygen as possible.
Like so many things in sport, specificity matters in swimming. Swimming in an indoor, heated pool is not the same as swimming in a living body of water (such as a lake or the ocean). Even then, swimming in a spring-fed lake is not the same thing as swimming in the ocean. And swimming in freshwater is not even close to the same thing as swimming in brackish or salt water. How buoyant we are, what the water feels like, what it tastes like, and how it reacts all vary based on what type of open water it is.
If you’re training for a race, getting exposure to and practice in the same type of water that you will be racing in is extremely, extremely useful for building confidence.
In practice (training), you are in control of more variables; there are not thousands of people starting to swim at the same time as you, and you can control when and how you start. It is better to gain experience and exposure to conditions such as ocean water in smaller, controlled scenarios so that you limit the number of new-to-you conditions and variables on race day.
Learning how it feels to swim in salt water, moving water with currents, deep and dark water, and/or choppy conditions in training will serve you well if and when those conditions exist on race day. If you have the ability to go swimming with a group of people, practice swimming close to them so you can get used to being around other people as you are swimming (which is a condition that will certainly exist in a race).
Talk to Yourself in the Third Person
Talking to yourself in the third person is an incredibly effective strategy in so many life situations, but it’s especially useful when swimming.
Picture yourself as another person or an outsider looking at yourself when you are swimming. If you saw someone having trouble swimming or experiencing anxiety about swimming, what would you do or say to that person?
Whatever you would do or say, say it to yourself, using your actual name and as if you were talking to a person other than yourself. For instance, I might say the following to myself:
“Hey, Coach Laura Henry! Remember your Go-To! Exhale completely and count to four, then take another breath. Look at me! Focus on your breath. Close your eyes for a moment if that helps you focus on your breath. Remember that part of your brain might try to hijack the rest of your brain and try to tell you that this is risky, but you have the tools in your toolbelt to do this and that it’s not as risky as that part of your brain thinks.”
Using the third person and talking to yourself the way you would talk to someone else is very powerful, as it can help us “get out of our own heads” and see situations differently since we are actively seeking to look at it from a perspective that is different from our own.
As you embark on your swimming journey, consider some of these tips and see if they don’t help make your experience a calmer and more enjoyable one. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.