I want to tell you about my first open water experience. I was training for my first triathlon which was going to be an Olympic distance race. I had been swimming since I was young although I was never on a swim team. I wouldn’t say that I was a great swimmer but I was definitely proficient in the water and very comfortable in my abilities. When the temperature finally got warm enough to hit the near by lake, the wife and I transitioned our swim training to the open water. We found a very safe place that was a no boat area with a buoy line that was approximately a 1/4 mile for each lap. My wife dove in first swimming as well as I’d always seen her, she swam in high school after all. I hesitated a bit but followed closely behind. I was immediately shocked by the fact that I couldn’t see anything, Texas lakes aren’t really known for their clarity, and I’ll admit I had a few moments of panic. I take this experience very seriously now as I train some experienced and some not so experienced athletes. If I, a very able swimmer can find myself in a state of shock and panic upon my first trip into the unknown realm of open water swimming, how do my inexperienced athletes feel?
Recently there was an article published in The Washington Post in regards the number of deaths during this year’s summer racing season. The total comes to 9 athletes out of more than 243,000. In the grand scheme of things that doesn’t sound like much but even one death is too many for a sport that is growing rapidly.
Fingers have been pointed in many different directions over the last few years to try and establish why it is that deaths occur during the swim. Official causes of death are limited to drowning with minor heart abnormalities being identified if about half of the victims while a heart attack has never been the identified cause of death. Unfortunately there’s no way to identify a panic attack postmortem.
The author’s hypothesis is that this has everything to do with athletes, experienced and inexperienced, panicking due to various reasons including the excitement of the moment, the chaos of swimming into and over other people, chest constriction of the wet suit, the darkness and coldness of the water, competitiveness and the desire not to quit when friends and family are watching. So what is it that an athlete can do to get more comfortable in an open water setting?
- Purchase a wet suit well in advance of race day. Most of the time getting a wet suit may require an online purchase based on body measurements provided by the manufacturer. Of course this is not a guarantee that the wet suit shipped to you will fit right. If it doesn’t fit then return it. Most of the time manufacturers are quite accommodating with returns but be sure to read their return policy before you make a purchase as some of them might not want their suits being used in a pool. If you’re only a week out from your A race with a brand new wet suit in tow, that could spell disaster when you find out that the chest or shoulders are too tight. Which bring us to…
- Take your wet suit on multiple test swims. If it’s still too cold to get in the open water than take it to your gym’s pool for a few laps. More than likely the indoor pool will be a bit too warm to spend much time in it but it’s a great opportunity to try it out under controlled surroundings. But be sure to rinse the wet suit thoroughly afterward to get all the chlorine out. Really you should rinse your wet suit after every use anyway.
- Enlist your friends. Grab a group of friends and head to the pool. Stuff 5 or 6 of them into one lane and start doing laps. In an enclosed lane there’s no where to go but forward and no escaping body contact. Remember that more than likely your friends will beat you around far worse than anyone will on race day.
- Close your eyes. There’s no black line come race day so get use to being able to see nothing. Open your eyes every 5-6 strokes just to make sure that you don’t run into a lane divider or wall though. This can also be a good tell to see if you have a balance issue in your stroke as you’ll tend to pull to one side.
- Sighting. Figure out your sighting technique now. Ask your coach for their advice on the best way to sight and try it in the pool. The one flaw with practicing to sight in the pool is that you can’t look very far off in the distance which you’ll have to do on race day.
- Open water practice. I hear far too many people in transition on race day saying that they’re nervous because this will be their first open water swim. They should be nervous, they’re about to jump into something where they have no idea what to expect or how to react when something happens that they’ve never experienced before because they’ve sought solace in the safety of a pool for all their training. Try and get into the open water as often as possible leading up to your race. This will take away from pool training time where you can work on drills but the mental gains you make doing this will pay dividends on race day.
Or you can always try this.