Maximize your chances of a safer, happier swim with these tips from Total Immersion founder and swim guru Terry Laughlin.
by Terry Laughlin
A few years ago, watching an open-water swim left a lasting impression on me. It was at the Cayuga Lake Triathlon in Ithaca, NY, where my wife, Alice, was participating in the 1.5k relay leg.
I watched five waves, each with some 80 participants, start the swim. Each time the same pattern unfolded: Following the start, 10 percent of the field swam steadily and confidently down the course. Another 20 percent swam reasonably well in their wake. Fully 70 percent swam uncertainly at best, barely at all in some cases, stopping frequently, switching to breaststroke, turning on their backs. Generally they took five to ten minutes to settle their nerves before making steadier progress.
Alice, a skilled swimmer with 30 years of pool experience, who had swum two miles and more at Total Immersion Open Water camps, was among those who looked overwhelmed and unable to swim at anything like her true ability until the field spread out.
New triathletes have a right to be a little timid when it comes to the open-water swim. Even 2008 Olympic open-water silver medalist David Davies said he felt “violated by people swimming all over me.” If an Olympic medalist feels that distressed, what chance does a triathlete have of being comfortable in a chaotic swim start?
Actually, a very good one.
When it comes to swimming, the majority of triathletes have a more urgent need to learn how to be comfortable than to increase speed or fitness. Here’s my four-part prescription for new triathletes to maximize their chances of a safer, happier swim in their first race and every race.
1. Learn Balance. This is the primary skill that gives you a sense of having control over your body in the water. In TI, balance is the foundation for every subsequent swimming skill. Learning to control that sinking legs sensation gives you confidence you can learn to control other things-like anxiety in open water. And feeling support for the water brings an overall sense of calm.
2. Practice Mindful Swimming. Replacing reactive thinking with calm, observant, reflective thinking is integral to the process of learning balance and every subsequent skill in the Total Immersion method. The ability to exert control over what and how you think in an environment where you may not be able to control much else is the best defense against anxiety. When teaching Total Immersion Open Water camps, I always teach our students how to use focus to create a “cocoon of calm” in the midst of exterior turmoil.
3. Practice with a Tempo Trainer. An inevitable result of the fight-or-flight response in open water is a shift to high-rate survival strokes, which greatly increases respiration rate. Faster, shallower breaths make you feel light-headed, making an uncomfortable situation even more so. Using a Tempo Trainer to encode a controlled tempo in your nervous system will also control your respiration rate.
4. Avoid the rush. After the start signal, take your time before you begin swimming, and/or start at the perimeter of the pack. “I remind my triathletes of pythagorean geometry: On a 200-yard stretch, if you start 60 feet outside the most direct path to the first buoy, you’ll only swim one yard farther to get there,” Says Total Immersion coach Dave Cameron.
What to do when anxiety strikes anyway?
It’s not the end of the world if you still feel your heart, breathing and stroke rates getting away from you. Here’s how to handle that.
Hit the reset button. It’s so common to feel some anxiety early in the swim leg, that all new triathletes should have a plan for recovering from anxiety-and practice it in advance. The athletes I observed at the Cayuga Lake event had the right idea: Swim 10 or 12 strokes of breaststroke-a more naturally relaxing style than crawl. Stretch out fully with head hanging between your shoulders. Emphasize a leisurely glide, exhaling fully to clear CO2 and slow respiration. As you do, remind yourself how great it is to be living it in such a vibrant manner. Take a few more strokes and breaths to visualize how you want your crawl stroke to feel, and then get back to it calmly and easily.
Become the “quiet center.” I personally love pack swimming and swim better with close company than alone. A primary reason I enjoy it so much is that it sharpens my focus. When swimming with others in open water, I observe their strokes and turn it into a game, testing my ability to swim with a quieter, more leisurely stroke than anyone around me. In fact I enjoy it so much I’m sometimes sorry to see the race end. When in a pack, strive to swim with a more relaxed stroke than all those around you. This will help turn your swim leg from pressure-filled into a game or work of art.
Terry Laughlin is the founder of Total Immersion <http://www.totalimmersion.net/> coaching: “Swimming that Changes Your Life.” This article has been excerpted from Laughlin’s blog, where you can read it in full <http://www.swimwellblog.com/archives/1369/> .