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How To Get Over Your Fear Of Open-Water Swimming

by | Jul 10, 2023 | Mindset, Training

A topic that I come back to year after year, no matter how many triathlons I do, or how many years of *not* doing triathlon I take, is that I really want to enjoy open water swimming. But every time I get out in a lake or bay or ocean, I get a bit of panic tightening my chest the further I get from shore. The funny thing is that I’m a strong swimmer and I’m not scared of drowning—I just have an imagination that runs freaking wild.

Even with no races on the calendar, I’ve decided to work on this fear whenever I can. We live right on the bay, DW loves the water, and it’s pretty darn shallow for quite a ways out. So, what I’ve started to do is spend time at hip-deep, goggles on, just swimming around like I’m scuba diving in some gorgeous lagoon. And honestly? It’s working. (These days, it’s a blend of SUP and swim, but that makes it even more fun!)

It turns out I may have approached swimming the wrong way all these years. When I got into triathlon when I was 20, I was a decent pool swimmer and I loved playing in the ocean, but I hadn’t truly swam in open water until my first race, in a gross, murky lake. That’s because in NJ, the options for legal open water swimming are few and far between (the Jersey Shore being the exception, but I didn’t live near there). So, I never swam open water except for on race days.

Talk about pressure. I had nightmares before every triathlon. I honestly think triathlon is why I still have nightmares pre-any-race, and why race mornings feel so stressful. Starting a run or a ride = not scary. Jumping into the water with hundreds of other people? Yep, still terrifying. (Exhilarating too, and I do love triathlon, but still. It is a MUCH more intense race start.)

Basically, any time I was in open water, there was pressure on the situation. I needed to go fast and not be freaked out. Even in the last couple years, with great open water access, the only time I really swam was serious business swimming. So, this year, I’m playing in the water. Staying shallow (for now), enjoying slow swimming instead of a speed focus, just generally making the point of being submerged in the water about play, rather than about a certain distance or race goal. Taking the pressure off and telling myself I can just stand up if I need to.

I’ve never enjoyed water more!

So, dial it back. Don’t start with open water swimming where you’re trying to do freestyle for 30 minutes. Start with waist deep water and just submerging, floating, getting used to the feeling of being in a big body of water. Get used to your goggles. Side note: I also did this roundup of the best swim goggles for GearJunkie, in case that’s keeping you from the water!

I think this is applicable to a lot of things in sport. Freaked out on the mountain bike? Slow it down and give yourself permission to be slow, to walk scary stuff, and to never go beyond your ‘pushing it’ zone. Make it OK to NOT be scared during a ride, even if that means walking half of it. Sure, there are times we should get out of our comfort zone… but shouldn’t we also spend some time in that comfort zone in training?

All that to say, if you’re struggling with a certain part of your sport—like my irrational fear of zombies (and slightly more rational fear of snakes, if anyone remembers that scene from Swiss Family Robinson)—think about how you can dial it so far back that it’s completely comfortable for you, and then slowly build from there. And enjoy that time, too! I’m honestly having a blast just putzing around the bay, looking somewhat ridiculous in my goggles in waist deep water.

Planning a triathlon? You may also want to check out this article on how to be a transition boss…And get more advice with this article I did for Nylon, interviewing experts on getting over the fear: How To Get Over Your Fear Of Swimming

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