By Coach Jennifer
Is St. Louis Tri your first open water swim race? Have you been struggling with open water swim anxiety through several races? It’s common to feel anxious as the first open water swim race of the season approaches. You are not alone. We’ve all been there at some moment in our triathlon journey.
Here’s some tips for calming your nerves in the moment and for preventing them in the first place:
- Practice makes permanence. Some people call it exposure therapy. I prefer to call it confidence building. When we get out in the lake with regularity, we become familiar with open water swimming and that makes us more comfortable. Each positive experience and moment of problem solving build our self-confidence brick by brick.
- Focus on your exhale. I often tell swimmers with anxiety, “If you do nothing else, remember to exhale.” It’s a classic “which came first, the chicken or the egg” debate. So which comes first, the anxiety or the hyperventilating? Control what you can and that is your breathing. If you don’t exhale into the water, your lungs will not be ready to inhale a full breath of air when you turn your head to breathe. A steady release of bubbles into the water will ensure you do not start hyperventilating and thus trigger a panic attack.
- Play with your wetsuit fit. If it is too tight across the chest or around the neck, the constrictive sensation can become claustrophobic. Try swimming with the neck velcro open or very loose. Heck, you can even leave the zipper down several inches. Sure, it creates a bit of drag. But would you rather loose time to a panic attack, risking being pulled from the open water by lifeguards, or have an anxiety-free swim that took a bit longer than others?
- Start in the back of your wave and swim to the outside of the buoy line. The most efficient swim is to start at the very front of the swim wave and hug the buoy line. If people touching you in the water triggers your anxiety, then stay out of the zone of swimmers. For St. Louis Tri, we are to swim with the buoys on our right. So swim as far to the left of the buoys as you can while still being on course. This will usually place you closer to the lifeguards on paddle boards and kayaks, which are allowed for resting but not for moving you forward. It’s legal to hold on to them to rest and catch your breath but not to make forward progress. If the lifeguard needs to move to help someone, simply let go of the paddle board or kayak and get back to swimming.
- Use your brain to your advantage, not your detriment. When the chimp known as our fight-or-flight reflex starts yelling in your head, acknowledge it as swim anxiety and feed it calming, positive thoughts. I bring myself back to the basics by repeatedly telling myself “bubble, bubble, breathe.” Another mantra of mine is “I can do this. I will do this. I AM doing this.” To reboot my brain, I do my best Dory … “Hi, my name is Dory. I have short-term memory loss.”
- Get out of your head and see yourself from outside of yourself. During a panic attack at my first St. Louis Tri, I found myself yelling, “Stop touching me!!” to the swimmers around me. I took a deep breath while breast stroking and realized that I was my worst enemy, not my fellow athletes calmly swimming in the lake. And I was burning time by letting my mind go wild.
Ask people what tips and tricks they use. Lean on our triathlon community. And remember, just keep swimming!