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Whats your Biggest fear of open water swimming?

Does the above image fill you with fear and dread?

I know that it has for me in the past! The OPEN WATER MASS START!! 500 plus triathletes all starting at once!

My first experience of one of these was at the London Olympic distance triathlon in 1999, I remember it very clearly, as I miscalculated my abilities, went too near the front, got swum over way too much, and experienced a washing machine effect for the first 250 metres at least! It wasn't pleasant and put me off mass starts for quite a few years. (This was also before I started coaching too)

I'd borrowed a wetsuit which was slightly too big for me, which then let in lot of water, and felt like I was swimming with my big TYR paddles all the time! It felt really hard work, I didn't particularly enjoy it, and spent over 5 minutes in transition recovering from the effort, and feeling relief that this discipline was now over!

Other swimmers and triathletes experience difficulties with controlling and managing their breathing, pacing, starting off too fast, getting caught up in the middle of a pack, not being used to drafting and close proximity swimming, and sprinting off the line because that's what everyone else seems to be doing!

Am I really that slow has gone through my head more than a few times, and my average race pace is about 1:36 mins per 100 metres! What's it like for novices and those not used to training or swimming with other triathletes / open water swimmers?

Adding to this quite a lot of triathletes and open water swimmers are apprehensive about swimming in the sea as its unknown and very different from swimming in the open water lakes we're all used to.

Open water swimming has long been said that it's much more about your mental approach and keeping your mind on the task and focused and not thinking about the uncontrollables.

This post has actually been inspired by a couple of clients who have recently been struggling with their open water skills and more of changing their mental approach and training leading up to their open water swimming events

So how do we overcome the mass start?

  1. Warm up beforehand with 1-200 metres of swimming if possible, and to get acclimatised. If this isn't possible, then a 5 min jog will suffice.

  2. Knowing what pace you're going to be doing and targeting from specific training sessions in the pool and open water and stick to this, not being caught up by other swimmers faster pacing

  3. Practising mass starts in open water either by yourself or with a couple of friends

  4. Starting in a horizontal position sculling your hands and feet to keep and maintain space and distance around you. This is much easier than starting in a vertical position where everyone is like sardines in a tin, all squashed together, and therefore when the start gun goes you end up swimming on top of the swimmer in front, and the one behind does the same inadvertently to you.

  5. Control your breathing before the start with some deep yoga diaphragmatic breaths which will help stimulate the vagus nerve in your brain, helping you to relax.

  6. Not starting out too fast - stick to your own pace level and know how this feels. Control the contrallables. If you start too fast you'll go into the "RED ZONE" and this can push you into your vo2 max heart rate zone which is just for very hard intense efforts needing lots of recovery after. If you go into this then your breathing will become very deep and laboured, and you may not recover for 10-15 minutes until you can start swimming hard again!

  7. Feel if there are any currents or drifting in the water when you have your warm up. Also, speak to the race organisers or race referee if they are around and ask them for advice if there are any currents to be aware of

  8. Swim in a variety of conditions - especially in the sea, where it's flat, slight waves, windy, and some waves so that you're ready and not unprepared.

  9. Practice drafting by doing some fun based drills swimming close beside a friend and high fiv-ing on the recovery portion of the stroke.

  10. Start off to the side and towards the back of the field if you're not sure about joining in on the melee of a mass start. Go wide around the first swim buoy. Start off slow and give yourself time to warm up and settle in. Try not to put so much pressure on yourself and view the swim as the warm up for the rest of the triathlon. Think about the positives, and how lucky you are to be able to swim in this environment and experience the freedom of open water swimming. You don't have to swim 2 inches from another swimmer in order to get the most out of your swim.

You can always roll onto your back and do some back stroke, and empty the water out of your goggles. Other tips for making the most of your swim are counting to calm your nerves, counting your swim strokes, and starting 30 seconds after everyone has gone. 30 seconds doesn't matter or make much difference in a race, or swim event, yet it can be the difference between you enjoying the swim and not.

If you would like to go through any of these areas with an open water swim coach, then I'm available for 1-2-1 and group open water swim lessons at Hayling Island beach in Hampshire.

Open water swimming lessons are held at Hayling Island, meeting next to the Inn on the Beach pub.

These sessions are for all levels of swimmers, triathletes and masters, who can swim a minimum of 400 metres comfortably in open water


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