20 Calming Techniques for Open Water Swimming

Calm open water swimWe would probably trade our first born for an open water swim that looked like this.

Some swimmers actually get to experience conditions these, the ones leading the race, like an Andy Potts or a Lars Jorgenson, once they’ve broken away from the pack.



But for most of us, we scrum in this world:

Frenetic open water swim

It’s sort of not fair, is it?

But since this is our reality, let’s focus on ways to cope with the challenges we face in a mass open water swim. These tips are applicable to anyone, but I’m primarily focusing on those of you who are just trying to get through the swim, those with the goal of making it out of the water without a panic attack.

So without further ado . . .

1. When you first enter the water and duck your head under, give a good exhale, like really good. Make it long. “Empty” the lungs. This will ensure that the first breath you take when you surface is a deep one. When we get anxious, the breaths come shallow and fast, moving only “dead” air up and down the trachea—i.e., nothing happening at the cellular level in the alveoli where the oxygen transfer takes place.

2. Exhale adequately. Most breathing, and thus, anxiety problems are due to an inadequate exhale. Maintain a slow exhale through your mouth and/or nose when underwater, a light bubbling. Humming is a good way to remember to exhale. This also keeps the exhale at a slow rate instead of a too-forceful blast. Also, you want to hear the sound of air leaving your mouth and/or nose as you roll through the surface—i.e., don’t stop your exhale prior to clearing the surface.  This way, the subsequent inhale comes in automatically. If you are actively thinking about inhaling, then something is wrong with the exhale.

3. Swim with your mouth loosely open underwater. After inhaling with your mouth, there’s really no need to close it—it’s just an extra step. This will help relax the facial muscles, reducing fatigue and tension. When you clamp your mouth down hard underwater, puffing out your cheeks, you’re creating gobs of tension. You can bring your lips together slightly on the roll up to breathe to keep the water out of your throat. To learn about this in more detail, click here.

4.  Relax your recovery. So much extra tension is carried during the recovery phase of the stroke. The recovery phase is the part of the stroke where your hand exits the water after pulling to where it enters the water for the next stroke. Your forearm should literally hang from your elbow as the elbow moves forward. The forearm should be limp, the wrist limp, the fingers loose. To read more, click here.

5. Fingertip drag. This is a great way to practice a relaxed recovery. Let your fingers drag gently in the water as you swim to remind yourself to relax the recovery. You can do this in the pool in your workouts, but also, you can do this in the race, either when warming up beforehand or in the first several yards of the race. Keep it easy. Keep it gentle. More here.

6. Relax your extension. This is common—swimmers, crazy with rigidity, driving or spearing their arms forward when entering the water following recovery. The extension, just like the recovery, should be tension-free.

7. Pull your wet suit away from the neck to let water into the torso area. This might help relieve the pressure you feel of the suit against your chest. Do this just after getting in.

8. Don’t kick. Like literally. Especially when your goal is just to get out of the flippin’ water. When you’re in a wet suit, there is no need to kick. Let your legs float behind you. Usually, when I tell my swimmers not to kick, their legs still move, but in a very small way just for balance. You will save buckets of energy if you do this. I can’t tell you how many of my swimmers have found instant relief in this. You do not have to kick, no matter what anyone tells you. Other swimmers and coaches with competitive swimming backgrounds will swear up and down that you MUST kick. Well . . . you don’t.

9. Do 2-count breathing instead of 3-count breathing. Again, I hear this all the time, that you MUST do 3-count, or bilateral, breathing. No, you don’t. Two-count is perfectly acceptable and brings you to oxygen sooner. When we fall behind on our oxygen intake, we get tensed, anxious, and panicked, lifting our heads and flailing, and it’s often because we’re trying to stick to a 3-count breathing pattern. Yes, there are many advantages to 3-count breathing, but really, the need for oxygen and a relaxed, sustainable breathing pattern trumps everything. Read in more detail here.

10. Go with the flow of contact, meld with it. No matter how well you seed yourself, you’re going to have contact in the swim. If you your arms get whacked or someone swims over your legs or whatever, let your body be spaghetti, keep the arms turning until you’re clear. Never push back or “fight” the contact.

11. Know that breaks are allowed. You can rest vertically oriented, head up, as the wet suit floats so well, using no more than light scull. Or, you can rest on your back, take several composing breaths, and then be on your way. Or, if you’re really desperate, hang onto a kayak or raft. As long as you don’t make forward progress, it’s legal.

Tempo trainer12. Use a tempo trainer. These are little metronomes that you clip onto your goggle strap or tuck under your cap, and you can set them to beep at a specific stroke rate. When you use a tempo trainer for the purpose of helping you remain calm in the water, match the stroke rate on the tempo trainer with a relaxed, sustainable stroke rate you’d like to keep for your race. Concentrate on the beeps, the rhythmic nature of it, the steadiness of it. One arm entry for each beep. Tempo trainers are made by Finis, if you’re interested.

13. Utilize the practice swim time, if offered.  It depends on the venue, but sometimes set hours are offered to swim the course or part of the course in practice in the days leading up to the race. If it’s offered, take advantage. It’s a great way to get some of the race day jitters out ahead of time.

14. Arrive early. This should be a no-brainer, but arriving late is a huge stress inducer that leads to anxiety in the swim.

15. Practice in the open water. A given, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes to relax in an open water environment.

16. Practice in your wet suit. Do not be that guy who shows up to the race, un-worn wet suit in hand, price tag still attached. Similarly, even if you’ve owned a wet suit for a while, prior to a race, ensure you have swum in it recently. Often, we squeeze into this constricting, claustrophobic, choking piece of rubber on race day and it’s been months since the last time we’ve last worn it. Ugh. Whether in the pool or the open water, gaining time in your wet suit helps with relaxing come race day. I know wet suit companies say not to wear your suit in the pool, but just so you know, I’ve done it for years, carefully rinsing them after, and the suits have come out of it just fine.

17. Give yourself plenty of time to put on your wet suit. Sort of like arriving early, you want to start this process with enough lead time that you don’t feel rushed. Twenty-five to thirty minutes ahead of your race start is not too far in advance to be putting on your suit. If it’s hot, leave it rolled down at the waist, but at least have the legs on and everything pulled up high in the crotch (crass, I know, but it is what it is) so the suit doesn’t pull down unnecessarily on your shoulders once you have the top on.

18. Tread water gently, especially in a wet suit. This is applicable with deep water starts, where you need to float for a few minutes prior to swimming. So much energy is wasted here with unnecessary kicking and arm movements. If you’re in a wetsuit, you need only the gentlest of arm sculls to keep your head above water. To see what I mean, practice in water deeper than you can stand, take a breath, hold it, put your arms at your sides, keep your legs together (no movement) and practice bobbing. Be sure to notice, to internalize, that when your head drops below the surface, it pops right back up. Add a slow bubbling of air out of your nose and relax.

19. Stop when the starter says go. Yes, you’re rarin’ to go, you’re tapered, you’re rested, you are on. It’s easy to get carried away, starting way faster than you should, your oxygen needs quickly outpacing your oxygen supply. But if you’re trying to remain relaxed, attempting to get through the swim without panicking, you can afford to stay put, while everyone else takes off. Seed yourself well (in the back or to the sides) so you don’t get run over, wait for the gun to go off, then hang out until some space clears, and you can be on your way.

20. Be where you are. Sounds like a Bruce Lee quote, right? But hear me out. Rather than finding yourself in the middle of a swim and thinking, “Holy crap! I’m in the freaking middle of a BIG freaking lake, with no bottom, no sides, nothing to hold on to, *!$@!,” shift your thinking to where you are, to the two or three feet in your immediate vicinity. Think about a technique item, a relaxed recovery, an easy entry, loose fingers, focus on a good exhale, count the number of strokes between sighting for the next buoy. You want to get to a place mentally where it feels like you’re swimming on a treadmill, happy with where you are, not desperate to get somewhere else.

By employing some of the suggestions above, you just might find yourself using the words open water swimming and enjoyable in the same sentence. Now, wouldn’t that be something?