Tips & Advice

Open-water swimming: How to find your confidence


No matter how fast you get, it’s still OK to get a little worried about swimming in open-water (or to flat-out not enjoy it). I can truly empathise with swimmers who are nervous when getting to grips with open-water swims. Even now, I’m one of those people when it comes to swimming in the sea. And before that, it was open-water in general.

Initially, as a pool swimmer, the transition for me took place in season two, when I had the opportunity to swim open-water every weekend, either as a training session or as a race. By the end of the season I was quite happy in open-water, but it took time – time to get familiar with my surroundings and time spent in open-water.

I now look at confidence in the water in the following way when working out how to help someone. 

Recognise current confidence levels

When I’m working with a swimmer, I need to know what their main concern about open-water is. Is it the lack of clarity? The mass of people? The slight restriction around the chest from the wetsuit? From this I work out whether we need to build confidence by improving their swim technique, their fitness (or perhaps both), or by psychologically overcoming fears.

Being in the right frame of mind on race day comes from the confidence of knowing you’ve done it in training or replicated conditions in low-key, less stressful environments. Don’t flatten your confidence by starting too high up the ‘grid’, which will make for an unpleasant experience. Ideally you’ll be confident of completing the distance without it tiring you, but also of getting on the bike without feeling overly stressed.

Acquiring confidence – practice and prepare

Improving your confidence comes from repeating actions over and over in a situation that slowly becomes less uncomfortable. To become familiar with mass swims, try swimming with two people either side of you, with your wingmen slowly getting closer as you progress. Add a few more people into the group, with someone out in front. Eventually that small trio of people is a 30-strong group practicing across an open-water venue.

To help your confidence further, try to prepare in conditions that replicate your race dynamics. For example, the canal exit at Ironman Austria can be recreated by racing smaller, low-key river swim triathlons. A feature of the Lake Placid Ironman swim is how the buoys are attached to a submerged tracking visible in the clear water. Dorney and Holmes Pier Point have similar submerged lane markers, making ideal practice swims. This sense of knowing helps lower stress levels while reassuring you that you’ll be OK on race day.

When ready, try some open-water racing without your wetsuit, just in case the worst-case scenario arises.

Build on your confidence…

When you think of all the things that can irritate and chip away at the already fragile confidence you might have about your open-water swim, it seems sensible to take control of as many factors that you can. Ensure your wetsuit is comfortable, that goggles fit and don’t leak or fog (many times, far too close to race day, I’ve come across swimmers who weren’t yet comfortable with a pair of leak-resistant goggles), and learn some self-defence measures to protect yourself at the start. Catch-up is a great drill and will leave both arms around your head momentarily, helping provide a degree of protection if you’re concerned.

…and apply it to your swim

More confidence might mean you start further up the field, which gives you the opportunity to swim the first 400m, rather than battle it out mid-pack. Nothing slows a swim and leaves you fatigued and frustrated quite like wrestling your way through a densely packed field of slower swimmers. Many swimmers find their best swimming halfway through a training session, after a good warm-up and a chance to build into their stroke. Try to recreate this sensation earlier in the race by performing a dry land warm-up ahead of a water-based one (if possible), so that you feel good and ready to swim well when the gun goes.

Prepare for next season

At the end of the season, spend some time planning and incorporating the necessary skills for next year. Think about the basic skills that allow you to master as many of the controllable variables as possible. Think about the types of smaller races that might help prepare for the big one. Knowing that you’ll be happy completing the distance required is also something you should be confident of well in advance.  Try to reduce potential stress that might worry you – i.e. could it possibly be a non-wetsuit swim? How close under the cut-off might I be? Can I make myself more familiar with the style of course I might be racing during my A race? Factor in and work on the stuff you have control of. With those aspects mastered it might just keep the worry about the uncontrollable stuff under control.

Missed Dan’s last post? Click here to read Dan’s guide to wetsuits featuring fitting advise, and top tips for putting your wetsuit on and taking it off efficiently.

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