Note: This is a post from No Meat Athlete Resident Triathlete and Triathlon Roadmap author Susan Lacke.
Runners often tell me they’d love to check out the triathlon scene, but they can’t (or won’t) swim.
They say swimming is hard, the mass start looks scary, and open water just gives ‘em the heebie-jeebies. And I’ve got to admit, they have a point.
Most of us log our swim training in the pool. When it comes to our first open-water swim start, we get a reality check when the starting gun goes off.
I wish someone had warned me of this — in the first 5 seconds of my open water swim, my mind rushed with a frenetic string of thoughts:
- Why are these people so CLOSE to me?
- Where’s the black stripe on the bottom?
- Why can’t I see my hand in front of my face?
- What is that thing floating up from the bottom? Is that a lake zombie?
- I can’t breathe. Am I going to die?
In spite of all the pool hours I had put in, three minutes into my first open-water swim I was flipped over, doing the backstroke, and gasping for air. I’m sure the spectathletes on the shoreline were thoroughly amused.
As for the zombie, turns out there was no creature of the undead in the lake — just a stick.
Everyone’s first open-water swim is scary
Usually, so is the second one. To be honest, the third one is, too. But something amazing happens each time you get back in the water: It gets less scary.
After that disastrous start to my first race, my triathlon friends sat down, listened to my fears, and offered the words of inspiration which I will never forget: “Shut up and get back in the water, Lacke.”
Ah, tough love.
For those of you with a serious case of open-water heebie-jeebies, I offer this same gem to you: Shut up and get in the water. To make your first open water swim a little less scary, here’s what you need to know.
1) There is no such thing as a lake zombie.
Sure, you may think it’s a ridiculous statement, but I have to utter this to myself before every swim start. As a child, I had nightmares involving lake zombies, and even though I know this is an irrational fear, I still get nervous.
Chances are, you have an irrational fear, too — maybe you’re scared of being eaten by a shark, or you’re fearful that you’ll drown and no one will notice until it’s too late.
For every fearful thought, you need to have a rebuttal. If you’re scared of drowning, for example, remind yourself of the many kayaks, swim spotters, and lifeguards surrounding the swim. If you’re scared of sharks, know how rare shark attacks are in your ocean. If you’re scared of lake zombies, well…a good start is to avoid Mexican food and horror movies before bed.
2) There are, however, other creatures in the water. Deal with it.
There will be fish. There will be vegetation. There will be insects.
If you’re like most swimmers, the thought of the critters in the water will send you into a mild panic. Relax. You’ll probably never come in contact with any of these — the mass start of an open-water swim typically scares fish off and clears the area of floating sticks & weeds.
If you’re still scared, just remember — you’re the giant invading their home. Most fish aren’t going to attack you — they’d rather hide in the fishy panic room until you leave.
3) Get the right gear.
A pair of goggles that fog up will exacerbate your nerves. A wetsuit that is too tight will make you feel like you’re choking. A trisuit that isn’t skin tight will act like a net for lake gunk. No one likes to be blind, suffocated or slimy. To avoid this, make sure you go to your local tri shop and get the proper gear, then test it out before race day.
4) Have a strategy.
Triathlon swims typically swim counter-clockwise, with large buoys marking the course to the left-hand side of the swimmers.
Apprehensive swimmers may want to start in the back of the pack. Others choose to swim wide (on the outside, or right, of the pack). Some like to have the buoys directly on their left-hand side so they don’t get lost.
Whatever your preference, make sure you know the pros and cons of your strategy. If an extra minute or two on your swim time isn’t that big of a deal to you, it may be worth it to start in the back to keep your wits about you.
Additionally, know that strong swimmers in the pool aren’t always strong swimmers in open water. Make sure your training includes drills that will strengthen your ability to perform in open water.
5) Keep calm.
I know, I know — it’s easier said than done.
When you’re surrounded by other swimmers, especially during the mass start, you’ll feel like you’re in a washing machine with 700 ninjas. This tangle of legs, arms, and water can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Just focus on what you are doing and where you need to be at the moment. The chaos almost always dies down within the first minute or two of the swim, as the pack spreads out. Stay focused and avoid pushing or kicking someone in retaliation — they likely didn’t mean to bump into you, and anger and frustration will only amount to wasted energy.
6) Breathe & blow.
I use this trick every single time I swim. When we panic in the water, our natural instinct is to flip onto our back and catch our breath, taking in large gasps of air. This is classic hyperventilation, or taking in too much oxygen, causing our heart rate to rise and our head to feel dizzy.
While most hyperventilating people breathe into a paper bag to calm down, that strategy doesn’t exactly work in the water. However, the same principle applies.
Instead of flipping on your back, stay face-down. Focus on turning your head to get a good breath of air, then stick your face in the water and focus on blowing bubbles at a steady rate. It will force you to regulate your breathing, and will take your mind off whatever it is that’s causing you to panic.
7) Watch where you’re going.
A common cause of anxiety for open-water swimmers is the challenge of navigating the swim. Even though swims tend to be in a straight line with minimal turns, there’s no black stripe on the floor or lane markers in the lake, making it very easy to get off course.
A swimmer who isn’t paying attention to where they’re going can look up and find they are several meters off course. That swimmer will then scramble to get back on course, overshoot the mark, and get even more anxious about zig-zagging all over the water.
To avoid this, practice sighting while you train. Look up as often as you need to see what is ahead of you and whether you need to tweak your direction. On race day, know the layout of the course, including how many buoys you’ll pass and what color the turn buoys are.
8 ) Make a smooth exit.
Don’t ruin a good swim by stopping short and breast-stroking to the exit. Know where the swim exit marker is located, swim with purpose towards it, and don’t stop until your fingers graze the lake bottom. Swim one or two more strokes until you can push yourself up with both arms, then stand up. Give yourself a second to adjust to the change from horizontal to vertical, and exit the water running.
Don’t forget to fist-pump on the way out — you survived the swim, you badass!
If you’re a runner looking to make the transition to triathlon, a new triathlete in search of tips and tricks, or a veteran looking to brush up on your tri-awesomeness, check out the NMA series for beginning triathletes!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susan Lacke, NMA Resident Triathlete and author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, is currently sporting tan lines from training that would put a zebra to shame. If you see her in a bikini, please refrain from making candy-cane jokes. Read her monthly column in Competitor Magazine and follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.
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