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Open water swimming can be scary... at first

6/14/2012

Open water swimming is a sport that is becoming increasingly popular among individuals of all ages and backgrounds. The addition of the Open Water 10-kilometer event in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China has fueled more exposure and interest in the sport than ever before. Around the world, there is at least one new open water swimming event started almost every day. In 2011 in the United States, 183,000 people participated in open water events while over 1.9 million athletes participated in events that include open water swims, such as triathlons and biathlons. This is great for our sport, as it increases the competitive opportunities for swimmers.

Open water swimming, though, does have some unique challenges which can seem daunting to swimmers who are unfamiliar with them. Experiencing anxiety before you hit the water is very common, but panicking in the water can be dangerous. However, if you know what to expect and are prepared for it, then you can keep normal anxiety from crossing the line into a panicked state.

Open Water Swimming: The Fear Factor
“Something’s looking at me!”
“Something just touched me!”
“I didn’t think I was coming to a boxing match!”

There are several contributing factors that are likely responsible for situations of panic among open water swimmers, classified into five categories: swimming in crowds, environmental conditions, lack of experience in open water swimming, wet suit constraints, competitive anxiety/competitiveness.

  1. Swimming in Crowds. Open water swimming is sometimes a fight to the finish, but it’s literally always a fight at the start. While you might be used to swimming in a crowded lane for warm-ups or practice, in an open water event you start out in a crowd and may be trapped in that crowd for the entire race. Swimming with a crowd can mean getting kicked or elbowed and can sometimes feel claustrophobic. Swimmers sometimes slow down or change course to get out of the crowd because of the fear of getting run over by other competitors.
  2. Environmental Conditions. Swimming in oceans, lakes, or rivers can mean facing cold water and turbulent waves, which makes breathing difficult. Water can be dark or murky, particularly after a group of swimmers kick up the mud, which can make it hard to see. There is also the often unseen wildlife, like vegetation brushing your leg or dangerous or not-so-dangerous animals (seals, dolphins, stingrays, sharks, jellyfish, or other varieties of large or unknown fish). These conditions can heighten the anxiety some swimmers experience.
  3. Lack of Experience in Open Water Swimming. The anxiety that normally accompanies competition can be made worse by a lack of experience in training or competing in open water settings. Although some things about swimming don’t change between competing in a pool and open water (you still wear a cap and goggles), many open water swimmers find it difficult to adjust pool technique to open water technique. For instance, they may comfortably breathe to the side during practice in a pool but have a difficult time sighting by looking forward in a race or may swallow of water when attempting to breathe while sighting.
  4. Wet Suit Constraints. Some open water events require a wetsuit, because of the cold water temperature in natural water environments. Wetsuits are supposed to be tight – if they aren’t they can carry water, making you work harder and feel colder. Some swimmers perceive the sensation of tightness around the chest to make it difficult to breathe. In addition, swimmers who don’t frequently, or ever, train in a wetsuit find it to be constricting around the arms and shoulders, thereby making it difficult to feel in control of one’s stroke. These constraining feelings can elicit panic in some swimmers.
  5. Competitive Anxiety. Pre-race excitement or anxiety is very common in all sports. The typical symptoms of performance anxiety may trigger increased heart rate and short, shallow breaths, which, when combined with the environmental factors above, may then elicit feelings of panic among competitors.


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