Overcome Your Open Water Fears

By: 
Kelly Singer
My husband helped me overcome my open water fears for my first triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. It turns out sea turtles don't bite.

Endurance sports like triathlons are the fastest growing segment of the fitness industry.  The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association study from 2010 shows that 1,208,000 Americans participated in at least one triathlon in 2009 (a 51 percent growth from 2007). While more and more people from a variety of backgrounds are participating in the sport, there are still many people hesitant to sign up because of the swimming portion of the race.

Having had a minor panic attack while swimming in the ocean, I can completely empathize with anyone who becomes a little short of breath thinking about open water swimming.  The combination of the unfamiliar feel of a wetsuit with a wild environment can be pretty scary for first time swimmers.  The first few times out there might be uncomfortable, but I promise you will get the hang of it if you follow my tips below.   With prior preparation, you’ll have the confidence to get out in the open water and sign up for your first triathlon.

1.     Do a practice run in the pool.  If you’ve never swam in a wetsuit, try it out in the pool before using it in open water. In the comfort and safety of a pool, you’ll get used to the way the wetsuit changes your stroke as well as the snugness around your neck and arms.  Check with your suit’s manufacturer to make sure the chemicals in the pool won't damage the wetsuit material or find a salt-water pool to practice in. (like the Coleman Pool in West Seattle)

2.     Have a support team.  Thankfully, when I had a panic attack, I was surrounded by my husband and several friends who helped calm me down and get me to shore safely.  If you don’t have any buds to join you, an open water swim clinic is worth the investment for newbies and pros alike.  Either way, swimming with others is a must.

3.     Practice your sighting. There won’t be lane lines running along the bottom of the ocean or lake to help guide you in a straight line (in Washington, you probably won’t be able to even see the bottom) so you must learn to lift your head and sight certain points in order to stay on track. If you are out for a training swim, you will want to look for various land markers to make sure you are staying on course. 

4.     Remember that you know how to swim.  While you want to practice your sighting, make sure that you aren’t lifting your head too often. The more you look out of the water, the more disruptive you’ll be to your swimming rhythm and your heart rate will increase. This will not only physically wear you out, but it can mentally tire you out as well. The best thing you can do is just relax and fall into a breathing and stroke rhythm.   Have faith in your pool training and remember that you know how to swim. A good rule of thumb is to swim 5-7 strokes before lifting your head to sight without straying off course.  

5.     Invest in the best goggles you can afford.  Not having to worry about water seeping in, fog, or the bright sun are reasons enough to buy a good pair of goggles.  Visit a local triathlon boutique to get fitted.

I wrote about the best places to swim in Seattle in my Try a Triathlon article a few months back. 

If you have any other questions about swimming or triathlons, connect with me on twitter. You can do it!

Categories: