It’s water. H20. Pool or lake or river or ocean, it’s still water.
Except for some folks, it’s not the same water in the pool as it is in the wild.
If you are perfectly comfortable in open water, I am happy for you. You can just run into the water, dolphin dive like, well, a dolphin. Then you just swim away, breathing every third or fifth or 11th stroke and sail away like you are swimming to Fiji.
If you are not exactly so comfortable in rivers, lakes, bays and the mighty Pacific, take heart. Presented below is a checklist of steps that you can take before every open water swim to enhance your comfort and bliss in the water. Enjoy.
Pre-Swim Visualization and Warmup
Step 1. Take 60 seconds to calm any excess nerves: Breathe — inhale deeply, pause, exhale gently. Smile — starting from the corner of your eyes and letting it spread to the rest of your face. Look up — pointing your gaze to 45 degrees above eye level or higher until the icky feeling dissipates. Imagine yourself at the finish line — looking around and noticing that your icky feeling is reduced or gone.
Step 2. Scope out the swim from shore and make an imaginary movie to see in your mind how it will go. First, make this imaginary movie from the perspective of “seeing yourself over there” (dissociated perspective). Watch yourself start off the beach, pass the buoys, and make the final smooth and easy approach to shore. Then, rehearse the swim again, this time seen through your own eyes (associated perspective). Make this imaginary movie of the swim going just as you want it to go while feeling it in your own skin.
Step 3. Get your wetsuit on just right — legs all the way up and ensuring that nothing is constricting your neck. The carotid arteries in your neck have pressure sensors that do not like being pressed upon (producing the uncomfortable sensations of the carotid sinus reflex). Make sure that your suit is not squeezing your neck.
Step 4. Get in the water early. Roll around in the water. Put your face in the water and blow slow bubbles; then lift your face into the air before inhaling — key skill. Let your wetsuit fill with water. Swim 100 or 150 yards with a couple of short sprints of 12 or 25 yards. This warmup will help overcome the mammalian diving reflex that can sometimes feel like a panic attack, but really isn’t. This pre-swim acclimatization to the water is the #1 most important thing to do before swimming away. And the colder the water, the more important this step becomes. I could tell you stories about triathletes who didn’t want to get into the cold water until the very last second, and then spent a lot of time eddied out at the first buoy trying to regain their composure.
Strategies to Use during the Swim
Step 5. During the swim, focus on accomplishing small goals. Swim to the first buoy, then to the next buoy — or kayak or whatever is your next close target. Break the course into smaller segments, similar to the way you break up your pool swims into shorter intervals. This will keep you focused on what you need to do right now, in the moment.
Step 6. If you start to feel uncomfortable, take a short break. Flip over on your back to take a breather, hold on to a boat, or whatever it takes to get started again. Giving up 60 seconds to recover and regroup will save you many minutes after the last buoy turn. USA Triathlon competitive rules allow swimmers to stand on the bottom in shallow water or, in deeper water, to “rest by holding an inanimate object such as a buoy, boat, rope or floating object” as long as you are not using it “to gain forward progress.”
Step 7. Disable any limiting self-talk that arises with this visualization technique. Pull the limiting phrase apart by visualizing the “can’t” in the self-talk. See it hanging in front of you so you can read the words; then expand “can’t” into “can not” and turn off the “not.” Focus on the “can” as you push through the tough spots. Just see if you can keep it going to the next target (remember Step 5).
Step 8. Focus on any part of this swim that is fun: the panes of sunlight passing through the water in front of you, the rhythmic swish in your ears as you glide along, the feeling of the water buoying you up and supporting your body, toes to forehead. Minute by minute, breath by breath, stroke by stoke, just feel the joy of being out in the world. The whole time. As swimming is meant to be.