So today, to open this Pandora's box, we're going to do a respectful discussion of a recent Triathlete.com article that is indicative of the types of help that are being offered to people with fear in open water events.
I'm a huge fan of the author Sara McLarty. She's an incredible athlete and coach and the work she has contributed to triathlon both as an athlete and a coach has been, frankly, fantastic. She's an enthusiastic contributor and ambassador for the sport. So I'm not picking on Sara per se since she has, like, approximately a million more credentials than I have, I'm just choosing this article as an example of the types of advice that appears in books and magazines on the topic of conquering open water fear, and it happened to be the most recent writeup that ran across my desk.
Anyway, the reason I think a re-think of how we think about conquering open water fear is necessary is for the simple reason that the messages we see out there plain 'ol don't work (eek, I said it). Articles are being written and read all the time, and yet we still have seasoned athletes as well as newbies going around all the time with open water issues. The fact that this is the case is the strongest argument to me that clearly there is a missing link in the information, wouldn't you agree? If it was a simple case of knowing the stuff and following the tips, we'd be home free, right?
So let's see what it said:
"Anxiety is normal among athletes at all experience levels."
"Mimic the chaos of open water by swimming with a large group in the pool. Share a lane with other swimmers where you’ll be forced to make contact, and swim side-by-side to become more comfortable.
Practice in open water as often as possible. Gather a group of training partners for a trip to the beach and attend any open water clinics in your area. Take advantage of every opportunity to swim in your wetsuit to get accustomed to constriction around your neck, shoulders and torso.
Use visualization to mentally prepare. Imagine stressful situations that can occur and think about staying calm, controlling your breathing and continuing to swim forward.
Compose a personal race-day strategy that helps you maintain confidence. Cut out all negative self-talk, use calm and deep yoga breaths when you feel anxious, familiarize yourself with the race course and positions of safety personnel, and position yourself at the back or outside of your start wave."
"You might still suffer a panic attack during the race. If that happens, just move away from other swimmers, roll on your back and focus on breathing and lowering your heart rate."
Ok. So first of all, I'm going to start by suggesting that ANXIETY IS NOT NORMAL. It is typical, but it is NOT NORMAL. We do not have to live in this space where anxiety is just something we have to deal with in triathlon. We CAN heal it so that it goes away and never comes back. If we know how to prevent panic we will absolutely NOT suffer a panic attack during a race.
Second, I do want to say that these are great tips for NAVIGATING THE CHAOS of an open water race. Swimming with others, practicing, visualizing, and knowing your strategy are excellent ways to help you get used to acclimating to swimming with others and/or in a wetsuit. The problem is that these have nothing to do with HEALING OR CALMING the deep seated fear or anxiety that is based in the fear that you might not live.
So what can heal this fear?
Knowing how the your body works in the water and how to prevent panic.
So how do those things work, then?
Taken in their raw muscle, blood, organ, and bone format, human bodies are 98ish percent water and generally if that was all they were made of, would not float. However, enter fat: a substance less dense than water, and what happens to a body? It floats. The more fat you have, the better you float. If you have low body fat (bless you, my child), you don't float very well UNLESS...(drumroll please) enter AIR. Having air in your lungs helps your body float in the same way that a beach ball floats on top of the water. The air inside the ball holds it up in the water. If the ball was covered by a super wet beach towel, it would still float, but not very high in the water. That's you - that's your body. You're a beach ball covered by a super wet beach towel. Sorry.
(There is a super tiny percentage of the population for whom this is not true and who sink even with a lungful of air; these people are rare and are mostly extremely lean like Olympic swimmers, ironically. However, sinkers can still remain near the water's surface by an easy, gentle sculling motion with the hands. It's just that floaters do not have to do this because their float holds them up instead of the lift from sculling).
Back to the floaters, which is most of us. If you are a floater in in the water with your face in, doing nothing else but hanging out like a tranquilized elephant, you will float but you can't breathe. A small downward press of your hands, and you can come up for air and breathe and go back to a restful front float while holding your breath. If you flip to your back, you can float there if you don't try to hold your legs up. Letting your legs dangle down like a jellyfish allows your face to stay clear of the water and you can hold the breath and take intermittent breaths whenever you want, or breathe freely, depending on your bone density and fat amount. I have to take intermittent breaths since I'm fairly slender, but some people I know can breathe as freely as a bird in their back floats.
The advice the article gives at the end about rolling over onto your back and focusing on breathing and heart rate is heading the right direction, but if you don't have a restful back float that you understand is part of the key to your own body being your own safety, then back floating is just another way to navigate and manage through an inevitable panic.
Preventing panic is done by remaining calm and only doing the things you know you can stay calm for. By doing things that you know you can stay calm for, you build confidence and the desire to do new fun things, much like a child is curious about the world around them and thirsts to know and do more. Knowing that you can get air whenever you want it using restful floats underpins this confidence and allows your goals to come to you with no pushing or stress.
Moreover, signing up for a race you know will cause you anxiety is not the way to conquer fear. The way to conquer it is to practice calm and do swims that make you feel more calm and confident in your floats and your ability to get air. Once you practice this and understand how the water works with your body, it will not matter how many people are around you or what the race course looks like because you will always know that you are safe.
Using these floats and this approach to calm is the key to open water swimming because YOU become YOUR OWN safety and do not have to rely on your freestyle stroke that will eventually tire, a kayak, or the bottom always being there. You are safe regardless (ok, unless a great white shark comes up, but that's a whole 'nuther article, people).
This is the Cliffs Notes version of a book that I have written on open water fear in triathlon and which is now currently in review with my co-author Melon Dash, author of Conquer Your Fear of Water. I'm a certified instructor in Melon's program called Miracle Swimming for adults afraid in water. I'd be happy to talk about these topics and teach them at every opportunity at swim lessons or clinics.
Questions? You know where I am!