Uncertainty generates anxiety. The more uncertainties you have about something, the more overwhelmed you can become. Being anxious while swimming in open water may seem to be primarily the result of worrying about one thing, but just as often it can be a function of several uncertainties added together to make a very uncomfortable feeling. Just like feeling anxious about many unknowns when first out hiking or camping in the wilderness, or when jumping off a zip-line platform for the first time, each of these lesser fears need to be recognized, understood, and put into perspective before open water swimming can become truly enjoyable.
Here is a short list of common anxiety sources:
The Uncertainty of What and Where your Safety Net is in Open Water
In a pool, you have a strong sense of security and safety: you are never far from a lane rope, the pool’s edge, the pool bottom, other swimmers, or a lifeguard; you can usually get immediate attention if needed, you don’t have an open water swim buoy. In open water, you do not have these same securities. In the case of open water, once you trust your ability to float easily for extended periods of time, you will recognize you are in no immediate danger, more so when using a safety swim buoy. Be proactive: before the start of every open water swim training session or event, seek to understand what the hazards are in the water you are choosing to swim in, and what safety resources are available (such as currents, rocks, lifeguards, rest areas, etc.), and make sure your open water swim buoy is ready to go. There is no substitute for the open water experience and intimate knowledge of the swim area. Just like any contract you are about to sign, make the effort to know what you are getting yourself into–before you get into it.
The Uncertainty of the Depth and the Bottom
In a pool, you can easily see the bottom, and you can easily make out where the shallow and deep ends are. Lakes, rivers, and oceans obviously do not provide these same markers or assurances; instead, open water swimmers will have to come to realize that the depth of the water is actually irrelevant to most swimming, which only occurs at the surface of the water. Some swimmers have a fear that, unless they are constantly moving, kicking, or stroking with their arms, they will sink, and drown. However, a simple drill will settle that for most people: In 3-5 feet of water in a lake or ocean, try going down to sit on the bottom for even a few seconds. You will quickly discover that you will have a tendency to bob up like a cork, which is especially true if you have a wetsuit on or you are in salt water. Open water doesn’t want to swallow you, rather it wants to spit you out! The wetsuit, along with the air you have in your chest, makes you buoyant, a natural PFD. Try this until you can fully believe that the water will keep you at the surface without much, if any, effort from you.
The Uncertainty Created by the Expansiveness of Open Water
In a pool setting, the defined borders of the space are easy to encapsulate in your mind’s eye with a quick glance. Open water settings however, can appear expansive, without a clear sense of the distance you must travel to safety or the finish line. This is especially true in a point-to-point swim, and this can be intimidating. Swimming 2000 meters in a pool seems both very safe and very doable, since you are never swimming more than 50 meters at a time before contacting a wall. Such a short distance is easily visualized in a pool, and 40 laps of 50 meters mentally seems easier than 2000 continuous meters in open water, where there are no breaks or wall push-offs. If for whatever reason you cannot finish the distance in a pool, you can just stop and get out of the pool. For the open water newbie, confidence in your training and your abilities are necessary. And, it may be easier to chunk down your swim in bigger pieces, such as going from marker to marker, since there are no walls to turn off of. Or think of an extended open water swim as a meditation, enjoying the journey more than fixating on the destination. Success here is in the perspective. We recommend the use of an safety swim buoy to further reduce your swimming anxiety.
The Uncertainty of Body Contact in Open Water
In an open water swim or in triathlon events (where mass starts are common), the first few hundred meters can be chaotic, with random, repeated, and sometimes significant contact by fellow swimmers. Flailing arms and hands and kicking feet of hundreds of swimmers in a small area can feel like swimming in a washing machine. This experience can be very distracting, uncomfortable, and anxiety-provoking even for experienced swimmers. To minimize this contact, you need to stay in control of the sphere around you: position yourself off to one side, and/or delay your start even just a few seconds to let faster swimmers go ahead of you. Start when you are ready and when a path seems clear, and have well-developed sighting skills to swim straight, thereby avoiding the tendency to swim into the side of another swimmer.
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