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On Training for Open Water Confidence and Competence

August 28, 2017

On Training for Open Water Confidence and Competence

So, you’re triathlon-curious but terrified of the swim? Turns out, you’re in the same boat as pretty much every other triathlete ever, including the ones with a swim background. Most of us grew up swimming in pools or playing in lakes and oceans, but rarely swimming great distances in them. Learning how to be confident and comfortable in open water is huge: much more important than being a fast swimmer, to be honest. I used to be speedy in a pool but a wreck in a lake. But this year, I finally started mastering my fears of open water swimming and it changed triathlon for me. My times actually improved—thanks to more swim time and the added confidence—but more important, I wasn’t coming out of the water feeling totally drained and emotionally exhausted, I was able to come out with a smile on my face, feeling stoked to get on the bike. So, let’s chat about what I did to change!

Umm… Swim in open water

In New Jersey, we do not have many places to practice open water swimming (safely or legally). Unless I was willing to hop off a kayak that my dad was paddling and swim alongside it in the reservoir near our house (gross and also terrifying), it wasn’t easy to find places. Then, I started moving around more… and still didn’t open water swim. But this summer, with Ironman looming and a partner who didn’t swim in open water at all and had never raced, we had to start getting into the water. Conveniently, we live right on a massive freshwater bay that has gorgeous clear water, so we made a pact to get there at least once a week. There’s a little beach under 10 minutes from us, so we’d suit up and head out, enjoy a little bit of beach time, and get in and swim laps close to shore, between two jetties. We gradually increased how far out from shore we got, but what was the big game changer for me was realizing I could stay super close to shore and feel totally comfortable, while still open water swimming!

Find a buddy

Seriously, if someone had told me that bringing Peter along for the swim would make it fun rather than terrifying, I would have done it a long time ago. Of course, the safety aspect is key, but even when I didn’t have a swim buddy, my dad was usually willing to stand on shore and keep an eye on me, or man the kayak. But having a body in the water with you makes a huge difference to confidence! (It also gave me a chance to get Peter ready for his first triathlon by being a jerk in the water, grabbing his ankles and occasionally taking him into the tape. Gotta have my fun somewhere!)

Swim more in general

As a competent swimmer, I often marginalize swimming in my training plan, opting to swim maybe once every other week even when I have a race coming up. This season, we added 2-3 swims per week to the schedule, and that comfort in the pool translated to even more comfort when we did get outside.

Do. Not. Hum. JAWS.

The hardest part for me isn’t swimming, or a fear of drowning. I have more of a horror movie script in my head. I have an extremely overactive imagination that runs towards sharks, snakes and zombies when I’m swimming. So, I spend my time in the water really focusing on counting strokes, my breath, whatever I can think about that ISN’T a zombie walking on the bottom of the lake and oh my god get me the hell out of here! (See what happened when I went there?)

Consider swapping to sleeveless

Unless you know you have a super chilly race coming up, I can’t say enough about switching from a full-sleeve to sleeveless wetsuit for those who get a little freaked out in the water. Sure, full sleeves are warmer and provide a bit more buoyancy, but sleeveless gives you a lot more range of motion in your arms, and unless the water is super cold, full sleeves are overkill. I stopped using them after I had a bit of a panic attack in the water at a race in California a couple years ago—just felt totally claustrophobic and had to stop, tread water, and slightly unzip my wetsuit to get some cool water in!

Now, I love wearing the sleeveless one. I couldn’t believe how much more freeing it was!

Those are just a few things I did: no intervals, no crazy training, just really simple stuff that made a massive difference for me. And Peter crushed the Ironman swim, BTW. (Although it’s a major point of pride that it took him until 50km to catch me on the bike despite starting at the exact same time!)


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