OVERCOMING OPEN WATER FEARS
One of the greatest sources of stress for many triathletes is the open water swim - and rightfully so. Going into an open water swim unprepared can in fact be dangerous. However, athletes who have done the training and developed the appropriate skills deserve to face open water races with confidence. We talked to three of our Playtri athletes to find out how they personally overcame their fears, and spoke with Head Coach Morgan Hoffman about her recommendations for athletes with OWS anxiety.
Meet the athletes:
Chrysta Castaneda, Jeff Genecov, Chris Doerbeck
What initially led to you have ongoing anxiety/fears surrounding open water swimming? Did you always have anxiety about open water, or did it start later on in life?
I've always known how to swim but have never been a swimmer until I started triathlons. I have no trouble being in a lake to start waterskiing, but had zero confidence that I could swim 750m in open water with nothing to grab and no way to touch bottom. It was directly related to the level of fatigue I would experience as a novice swimmer. How would I be able to cope? I really fretted over that. It was the most anxiety I experienced as I started triathlon training.
The issue with open water swim started in Galveston at my second half iron event. There was a practice swim on the gulf side, and although I went out with a number of people, they were faster than me and left me alone; I got scared. It was windy, it was rough, and the current was taking me out to sea, and it had moved me three or 400 yards down the beach. Fortunately I was in a wetsuit and i was able to make it back to shore. When I came out of the water and went looking for my stuff that I left on the beach, I thought someone had stolen it. I called my coach in a panic thinking that I was never going to be able to do it in the bay the next day. He calmed me down by telling me that the bay swim course didn't have near the current, there were no waves and it was smooth water, and he was right. I did just fine.
The next time I had a problem in open water was again in the ocean when I was in Kona after watching my brother do the Ironman; the next day I had scheduled a swim on the Kona swim course. Water wasn't necessarily rough but there was current, I was by myself, and I got too nervous and scared once I got out past jetty to go much further. And I believe that was the last time I tried to swim in an ocean in open water, not because I didn't want to but because the opportunity hasn't presented itself.
I grew up very active in watery environments with plenty of access to pools, beaches, lakes, fishing, sailing, etc... Open water swimming was not something that I knowingly feared. It was not until my first Olympic distance Tri in a lake where I experienced a panic attack during the swim which set me back and caused me to question if I wanted to pursue triathlon.
Were you able to quantify your fears about OWS, or was it a less specific/overarching anxiety?
Yes, I could quantify why I was afraid and that helped me to plan a strategy. I knew my fear was of fatigue and was concerned I wouldn't have any way to cope with it.
Underlying/overarching anxiety, plus as a teen, I was swept into some rocks while i was snorkeling by some big waves on the Pacific coast.
At first I could not explain it, but I continued to push forward and participate in events (notice that I did not say 'compete'). After some time I recognised that certain circumstances impacted the severity of the panic and I began to analyze the why and how. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my panic stemmed from lack of vision and vertigo. Let me explain...
At that time, I tried to swim similar to how I run. I would set my pace with my arms based on available strength/energy and take long deep breaths somewhere in between. Works great in the pool but in choppy waters, deep breaths are often interrupted. This led to the first symptom, feeling like I was gasping for air.
Next, my overall swim technique was not great and I had no practical experience for sighting. Trying to time my interrupted breathing between the chop and then sticking my head out of the water to see where I was going led to the next problem, fatigue.
Finally, I found that my colorblindness actually had a major impact as it causes me to hunt for the turn markers when my head is out of the water. This unknowingly led mild dizziness, especially if the water was dark or murky.
I likened my situation to a chaotic swim technique mixed with short carousel rides between strokes. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself on a carousel. Now imagine opening your eyes for a second and trying to spot a face in a moving crowd. If I couldn't spot that marker to see where I was going or I couldn't finish a breath, I had to stay on the carrossel a few more rounds until I corrected my course and my lungs were full... all the while my eyes were racing around looking for the marker on the horizon.
So now I had a formula with specific variables to work with. Three key areas to focus on.
What did you do that eventually allowed you to overcome your fears? Were there specific workouts, drills, mental exercises, etc. that played a role? How long did it take?
I realized pretty quickly that I can always float and tread water. I gave myself permission to roll to my back for a bit or to tread water until my heart rate recovered and I was ready to start freestyle again. I just told myself to keep plugging and to not worry about the time. This worked well for me, especially in the U.S. Open Tri in Rockwall in 2018, when in mid-October a cold front rushed in with 30 mph winds, kicking up the swells. Many people opted to leave the lake by jet ski rescue. That race proved to me that all you need to do is get out of the water and you're a success, because no one was setting any records that day.
Setting my breathing pace ahead of my swimming pace is what turned the corner for me. Sounds simple but that minor mental adjustment changed my focus to breathing short and comfortable first and only then setting a stroke to that pace. This simple step is what allows me to stay relaxed in the water. Gasping was resolved.
Next came the deep breathing. Simply switching to shorter breaths sounds easy, but I'm pretty thin and I had learned long ago that a full set of lungs float better. By taking smaller and shorter breaths I was suddenly sinking and my sagging feet were now causing significant drag which added back to the fatigue problem. Once I started focusing on all of the phases of swim stroke (catch, pull, exit and recovery), that's when things really improved. I now found myself stretching for the 'catch' which shifted my center of gravity forward and in turn kept my feet up and improved the glide. I also shortened the reach of my 'pull' (diamond shape vs. straight arms) which again helped to keep the feet up and improve the glide.
For practice, I would freeze and hold my recovery (hand out of the water and past the hip) for a count of 2 before starting the next 'catch'. This forced my attention to the glide and balance in the water.
I would also practice a push-ups (push myself out of the water) on the edge of the pool with my diamond shaped elbows. This trigger the muscle memory of where the easiest power (leverage) for the swim comes from. All this reduced the unnecessary fatigue.
I could not fix being colorblind, but investing in quality polarized goggles made a noticeable difference. I also coached myself to swim in packs. Being comfortable in a group of swimmers is important as it allows me to relax my sighting demands.
Before each race I acknowledge the sources of my panic and recommit myself to managing the symptoms early.
Do you still experience OWS anxiety? Is there anything specific you do before your open water swims to help manage your anxiety?
Yes. My anxiety has calmed down but it is still the most anxiety-producing. While I'm still not fast, I'm now competent to cover the distance. But if I'm not feeling it during practice, I give myself permission to go to the beginner side of the PlayTri OWS classes and just swim. And I do swim a lot of laps indoors to make myself more comfortable and less fatigued.
Breathing exercises and meditation help
I certainly think about it each time, but remind myself that I can manage it. I remind myself to not let my heart race, not gasp for air, pay attention to my isolation (try to swim in groups) , to roll over and float if needed , and finally to enjoy the swim. I have not needed to roll and float since I've learned to manage my symptoms. And when I get out of the water and head towards T1, I think about how great that swim was and psych myself up for the bike.
What advice would you give to other triathletes with similar fears/anxiety?
As you feel anxiety welling up, envision that you will "float to relax" when you need to do so: just roll to your back or dogpaddle. You'll realize that you can keep that up for a very very long time -- long enough to recover your heartrate and continue. Even picturing doing that helps calm the anxiety. And, OWS does get easier and less stressful the more you do it.
Practice, practice practice. Never go into the water alone and keep others around you at all times. Wear a wetsuit - it’s hard to sink in one of those. Go to a camp where the conditions will be similar to the race -the coaches will be there in kayaks and paddle boards to give you a place to hold onto if you get too scared. And practice. and keep a smile and a good attitude - makes a big difference!
Get out of your head first and try to analyze the sources of your fear. Talk honestly to your colleagues and coaches. Don't expect a quick fix. Everything can be addressed individually and over time. Knowing that you can overcome the fear is the first step. Then it is really just a matter of implementing the plan.
Meet Coach Morgan Hoffman
Morgan is the Head Coach of Playtri, and has been coaching triathletes of all levels for over 12 years. She gave us some insight on how she approaches open water anxiety with her athletes - here are her top eight tips for athletes struggling with OWS fears:
Work on becoming a stronger swimmer. The more confident you are in your ability to move through the water, the less you will be impacted by fears of rather you will be able to manage the conditions in open water.
Practice open water skills like forward sighting and swimming close to other athletes in the pool before transitioning them to the open water. Knowing you have the ability to execute these skills gives you a heightened feeling of control in the open water.
Visualize - get to know the course or courses you’ll be competing on, then spend time picturing yourself executing skills on those swim courses the way you want to perform them, and then picture yourself working calmly through obstacles you may encounter on those courses. DON’T spend all your time imagining failure in the open water!
Play in open water - go to a lake or the beach, and just spend time in water that isn’t a pool. If you feel comfortable, and there is a safe swim area, take a few strokes. Acclimate to being in a different environment, and remember that ultimately open water can (and should!) be fun.
Practice in open water as many times as you can prior to racing. Find local OWS opportunities (preferable with lifeguards and coaching, like the Playtri DFW OWS - www.playtri.com/playtri-dfw-open-water) where you can swim with others and work your way up to longer distances and faster efforts.
Start with open water swims that are traditionally less choppy/variable. Swells, current, chop, extreme temperatures and challenging weather conditions tend to exacerbate fears surrounding OWS. Start with swims that are known for being calmer and more temperate, and work your way up to more challenging conditions.
Focus on the breath. Start open water swims by immersing yourself in the water and doing a “bob” drill to calm your breathing. Relax the face and let yourself sink below the surface while you release all your air or “bubbles.” When you are ready to take a breath, pop up and breathe quickly, then go back under.
Stay focused on breath and form when the race starts. Don’t try to go fast - swim your own swim. Once you relax and feel calm you can pick up the pace - but only if you want to!
Let’s make 2021 the year we conquer the open water! Visit us at www.playtri.com/aquatics to join us for open water training, sign up for a swim camp, or get a free swim evaluation.