I want to focus on something that is more common than a lot of people might think, a triathletes anxiety/fear on race day morning before and during the swim. And I’m not talking about just pre-race butterflies, did I bring all the right gear, or the normal jitters. I’m talking about multiple trips to the porta-potty, increased respiration and HR, wondering why the heck I’m putting myself through this, and hyperventilation during the swim fear. There has been a lot of discussion on open water swimming fear and on triathletes dying during the swim, so the techniques and ideas presented on dealing with those issues in general should be the focus of anyone that stands behind the start line on race day and fears what is going to happen next.
Everyone that shows up on race morning has a feeling in their gut, whether it be excitement and the chance to go out and race at the top of their game, or fear and anxiety about everything that could go wrong during the course of their day. What separates the two groups of athletes is practice, experience, and the ability to control the situation under stress. Inexperienced athletes, those that haven’t thought about or visualized what can happen on race day, and those that just don’t function well under stress need to take a step back from the physical side of their training and spend time focusing on their mental preparation. So back to race day morning and that feeling in your gut about the upcoming swim, what can you do?
Let’s assume you’ve done your training and that you are able to handle the swim distance and conditions of the day, whatever they might be. If you regularly deal with fear before starting an open water swim, ocean, lake, or river, then you should focus on sitting down and visualizing the morning of the race leading up to and including the start of the swim. This can start days, weeks, and months before the event, to give your mind time to adapt to the stress; over time you should become desensitized to it. Of course hopefully you will continue to practice open water swimming to help with this process. Even practicing in the pool with 2-4 other swimmers around you in the lane can help you deal with the anxiety of swimming in open water in a crowd.
One thing I like to practice, and yes, I occasionally deal with anxiety on race day morning, is to go to the start of the swim the day before, especially at a venue I have not been to before, and sit down and take in all the surroundings to familiarize myself with them, starting the desensitizing process. Eventually I will close my eyes and think about the next morning, setting up my gear in T1, going through my morning rituals, pulling on my wetsuit, and heading to the swim start, getting in a good warm up swim where possible (more on that later…), and then queueing up with all the other athletes. If I’m in a later wave then I visualize each of the previous waves going off, hearing the horn blow, feeling the excitement as my time to start draws near. Each time I do this I can feel the fear build and subside until it is finally my turn and then the horn blows and I’m off.
From here I imagine where I will seed myself at the start, on which side of the group, how far back, and what my strategy will be heading to the first buoy and then I mentally swim to that buoy, looking for toes to follow, finding my rhythm and moving past my fear. And then I do it again, and maybe again, until the feeling in my gut, the fear, subsides. The next day when I get to the race start and I go through the motions that I visualized the day before, I feel more at ease with the day and can go about enjoying myself, chatting with friends and fellow athletes, and maybe even looking forward to the swim and the challenge that lies ahead.
It’s not to say that I still don’t have butterflies in my stomach as I’m awaiting my turn to charge into the water, but maybe now it’s excitement I’m feeling, thinking about getting a good clean start and getting out into the swim, hoping to make my goal time. But what if I still feel uneasy, or worse, have an “encounter” in the water that puts my brain back in the fearful mode?
If it’s the athletes around you that are causing you the distress, then you need to swim away from them to find an open spot of water to gather your thoughts to get right again. If it’s the water conditions that is causing you distress, then you can try breathing on the other side to avoid the waves or chop or whatever, or can you swim heads up for a few strokes to get your bearings, sight the next buoy and then move on, accepting the fact that everyone is having to deal with the same conditions and that you just need to slow down, focus, and not let yourself be overcome by these feelings.
I think the one thing that absolutely is the best medicine to prevent these feelings of anxiety is a good warm up swim. Some people just like to get in and get a feel for the water, do a few quick strokes and then get out, and they’re good. The issue with people dying during the swim has gained so much recent attention that many races now require athletes to do a warm up swim to get the heart properly warmed up and ready for the swim start and the associated stress. If that is not the case and you can get in a warm up, I strongly suggest you get in and swim 10+ minutes to really acclimate to the water. If you cannot do a water warm up then you can do a run on the beach, wetsuit and all, to try to get in what I like to call a heat cycle into my heart so I’m ready to go.
Don’t think that this will take anything away from your swim that day, as a proper warm up will allow you to go out and begin swimming faster sooner, or to not go through the wave of anxiety that can overcome each of us, having already cycled our brain and body through it that morning.
While doing this warm up swim I like to swim out at least as far from shore as the first buoy and sight the landmarks that I should be looking for on the swim. This way if the water conditions don’t allow for a good sighting while you’re swimming due to a swell or chop, then I can look further ahead to the landmark I had previously picked out and continue on a straight path to the next buoy, one less thing to freak me out. I’m also checking to see which way the current is going, while I just float around for a minute, which helps to determine how you should adjust your approach to the buoy. If the current is moving towards the buoy then I know to aim above it to allow the current to take me to it and then avoid the people having to swim back towards it. If the current is going the other way then I know to aim past the buoy so as not to swim too far around the mark.
Something else to consider is where to place yourself in the pack before the start. If fear is your constant companion and you’re a good swimmer and like to start upfront so you can mix it up, start to the outside of the group, away from the buoy (on the left if the first turn is a right and vice versa), and then hopefully you’ll have less bodies and issues to deal with. If you’re not a good swimmer and have fear, then start out towards the back, let the bulk of the swimmers head out in front of you, and then join in when you feel that you have enough open water to allow you to swim comfortably to find your speed and rhythm.
You also need to know that if you still have fear and anxiety during the swim, you can always pull off, raise your hand, and someone on the course will come over and provide a platform for you to hold on to. As long as you do not make forward progress while you’re stopped this is allowed and now even strongly suggested, so that athletes can continue their races without putting themselves in risk of heart attacks and drowning’s while having an anxiety attack by forcing them to swim when they’re not feeling right.
The bottom line to dealing with the fear of the swim starts is practice and visualizing what you can (and will!) encounter during the course of the swim. Physical preparation will get you to the start line, but mental preparation will allow you to stay focused and have the best possible swim.