5 Tips For Conquering an Open-Water Swim

Last year at this time, I was thinking, “So this is what an open-water panic attack feels like,” as I did my first practice swim in a lake for TriRidgefield. I got through that swim (you can read about it here) and that race (read it here) and even another triathlon swim, this time in the waters of Long Island Sound (read about that here).

Tonight, I did my first open-water swim of the year, in practice for TriRidgefield next week. My friend Derry came to the lake to practice, as it was her first open-water swim ever. As she asked me for advice, I completely flashed back to where I was a year ago. To make the time pass faster on tonight’s swim, I thought of some tips that can hopefully help anyone considering dipping their toe in that cold, murky water. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. Before you swim the course, get in and acclimate. DO YOU HEAR ME? Get in and your body used to the water! Paddle around! Stick your face in! Pee if you have to! That was the single biggest mistake I made last year. Between the cold water, the compressive wetsuit, and me naively thinking I would be able to see underwater, OF COURSE I had a panic attack. Get in about 15-20 minutes before you need to, and ACCLIMATE your body.

2. Wetsuits are your frenemy. On one hand, they make you more buoyant and keep your core body temp warmer. On the other hand, they can compress you like a weight on your chest, they can chafe you in unkind places (your neck, for one), and they just feel like you’re wearing a rubber suit, which you kind of are, which is weird, unless you are used to wearing rubber suits. Then you’re golden. Some wetsuit-specific tips:

  • Rent a wetsuit before you buy. I rented from triwetsuitrentals.com and they had fab service. It helped me realize I wanted a sleeveless wetsuit, which I bought later.
  • Practice getting your wet suit OFF quickly. That is a funky dance you don’t want to be wasting time on in transition.
  • Use body glide on your legs, arms, and neck to help slide the wetsuit on. Baby powder (just dump some right down the legs and arms) works too.
  • Make sure your wetsuit is yanked up in the armpits and the crotch, or you won’t have the range of motion you need for swimming; you’ll look and feel like a flailing water bug.
triathlon swim

Getting it off is a bear.

3. While swimming, count to yourself, over and over, until you reach a zen-like meditative state. I count on every other stroke: 1, 2, 3, 4, and on 4, when I breathe, I “sight” my target (when you lift your face out for a breath, quickly breathe then look forward before putting your face back into the water. It keeps me going relatively straight, and keeps me from freaking out too much. Other times, my mantra was “Calm and smooth, calm and smooth.” Just find something to occupy your mind.

4. Speaking of sighting, scope out large targets on the horizon that you can see easily. Buoys can be hard to spot from far away, so pick a larger target behind the buoy. For instance, I know that at TriRidgefield, I aim for a large rock face on the other side of the lake on the way out, and on the way in I aim for tallest tree on the beach.

triathlon open water swim panic attack

See that rock face in the waaay back? Aim for that.

5. Do NOT be afraid to stop and rest with a lifeguard. A decently staffed race will have lifeguards on kayaks and paddleboards throughout the course. According to USAT rules, you are allowed to stop with a lifeguard, as long as you are not being helped forward. No one will look at you funny if you stop. Do you remember any specific walkers from any running race you’ve done? I didn’t think so. The other swimmers won’t see you, let alone remember you. We all look like wet-suited, swim-caped minions. If you need a break, swallow your pride and rest. So much less embarrassing than having to be rescued by a lifeguard and being handed a DNF (Did Not Finish). AMIRIGHT?

And don’t forget…each time you do an OWS it gets just a little bit easier. If you have an opportunity to practice, take it! Hopefully, these tips can help you not only avoid a panic attack, but downright conquer your OWS.

Have I forgotten anything? Have you used any of these tips with success? Any open-water panic-attack survivors in the crowd tonight? Do tell in the comments!

 

 

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2 thoughts on “5 Tips For Conquering an Open-Water Swim

  1. All good points Nancy. I’ve experienced the open-water panic attack myself. For me this has only happened when we had to run into the water instead of starting in it. I think running into the water gives me an adrenaline shot and it takes me a few minutes to calm down and get my rhythm.
    One more thing, you WILL get kicked/punched and you WILL kick/punch others (but hopefully not on purpose!) this has happened in every tri I’ve done OWS or pool. It’s just part of the race and you need to expect it but it’s hard to prepare for.
    So if you panic or get kicked/punched just relax, take your time and keep going until you get your rhythm.

    Thanks Nancy and good luck everyone!

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