Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Developing A Strategy To Overcome Your Anxiety In Open Water

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Almost every swimmer, no matter how experienced, has some level of anxiety when swimming in open water.

We estimate that for around 50% of swimmers, anxiety is a significant barrier to their performance in open water as it causes them to lose focus on swimming straight, miss drafting opportunities and causes them to start out too quickly (exacerbating their anxiety further).

For perhaps another 5-10% of swimmers, their fear is such that it risks ruining their entire race through a panic attack or even pulling out of the race from feeling like they won't cope.

A lot of swimmers describe this as 'not liking open water swimming' or as 'being afraid' of it. But that's suggesting you have a general fear of everything about it, which is almost certainly not true. Instead there's going to be specific things, or perhaps one single specific thing, that sets off your anxiety.

Here's some classic 'triggers':

• Murky water
• Deep clear water (perhaps giving you a feeling of vertigo)
• Cold water
• Claustrophobia from the restriction of a wetsuit
• Claustrophobia from others swimming close to you
• Reeds, bull-rushes and other plants brushing against you
• A feeling of being tossed around
• Disorientation / losing your sense of direction
• The thought of marine wildlife coming close to you

That's not an exhaustive list but should give some good food for thought to examine your own fears.

Once you have clearly identified what sets off your anxiety then you need to devise a cunning plan (Baldrick) for overcoming it. Normally this involves deliberately encountering your fear in training in a controlled way so that you gradually and progressively overcome it.

Paul: A while back I was coaching a swimmer who swam quite well in open water but struggled in races when she was in close proximity to other swimmers as she had a great fear of being splashed in the face and not being able to breathe as a result. In training we went for several open water swims together with myself swimming alongside her. The plan was for me to deliberately splash her face a little bit from time to time as we swam along, which we did treating it as a bit of a game. She coped pretty well so progressively we increased the level of splashing more and more! This worked a treat and thinking of the splashing as a game really helped her adapt and overcome that specific fear.

If you are travelling to a major race (e.g. a championships or an Ironman) which has conditions you can't replicate locally, it is well worth getting there a few days early to swim regularly on the course in the build up. Getting out on the course with some friends swimming close to you is a great way to experience race conditions before the race itself.

Developing a strategy like this seems a very obvious thing to do but very few athletes take the time or have the discipline to do it. It is tempting to avoid our fears but by swimming regularly at a venue where you are likely to encounter your particularly trigger you will gradually overcome it. Having of a coach or friend in the water with you (or on a kayak) will give you valuable support and help you push through the fear and out the other side.

It might not be a pleasurable experience but you will start to unlock the door to great open water swimming. You can do it!

Swim Smooth!

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