Q+A: How can I gain more confidence in open-water?

Q. When I train in the pool, I glide up and down efficiently, but as soon as I’m in an open-water race, my rhythm and confidence go out the window. Can you help?

A. Going from the pool to open water can be an unnerving experience for even the most experienced pool swimmers. In the pool, all you need to worry about is technique and following the black line on the pool bottom.

In open water, you also have to fight the cold, combat the chop and navigate effectively, as well as overcoming possible fears of the deep. These factors can have a major impact on your swim. But there are physical and psychological strategies that can improve rhythm and confidence. In physical terms, your ideal stroke technique, which you perfected over weeks in the pool, might crumble as you are bumped and obstructed in a race. Learning how to adapt your technique – shorter strokes, head lower to protect it, and frequent sighting to identify clear water – is imperative if you aren’t to be left behind. Practising swimming in a tight group with friends is ideal, but if you’re training alone, go to your local pool during peak time and swim in the busiest lane: you should get an idea how it feels to swim close to other people.

A basic error is to avoid swimming at race pace during your training. Your technique can fall apart if you swim at a faster speed than you are used to, so ensure some of your training (including technique work) is conducted at race pace.

When you’re gliding up and down a pool, your breathing will seem regular and controlled, and will reflect your relaxed state of mind. This is often a far cry from a race situation, when nerves, anticipation and adrenaline can lead to shallow breathing and, in some cases, hyperventilation. A great way to combat this – natural – race reaction is to start the swim at a good pace but not flat-out, so you can focus on your breathing – breathing out, in particular. With a sufficient oxygen intake and a calm approach, you should soon become comfortable with the conditions and can increase your pace safe in the knowledge that you won’t be exhausted when you exit to T1.

Raising your head to sight at irregular intervals can also lead to a loss of rhythm. Practise sighting during your training to minimise the effect on your rhythm and speed. Another way to maintain rhythm is to sight less often. You could achieve this by sighting off things that you can see as you breathe to the side, such as the shoreline or other swimmers. (Make sure they’re going the right way.) The temperature in Britain’s sea and lakes is unlikely to rise much above 20ºC, even during the warmest months, much lower than the 28ºC you can expect to find in your local pool. A wetsuit largely negates this issue, but keeping your head warm is important. A close-fitting swim hat made of silicon, which is thicker than latex, or a neoprene hat in very cold water, should help. Earplugs are also useful to stop cold water in the ear canal leading to discomfort.
Try your goggles well before race day. I’m always surprised when I hear people say they used goggles in a race that they hadn’t tried before.

If they leak you will have an uncomfortable swim, while a scratched pair of goggles may work fine in the pool but cause problems when you’re trying to sight above the water.
From a psychological perspective, a fear of not being able to see the bottom in open water is often an impediment to first-time open-water swimmers and veterans. The more you swim in open water, the more at ease you’ll be in that environment, so try to get out there whenever you can, but always stay safe. Swimming in the race venue prior to your race is also an excellent way to become more familiar with your surroundings.

Simon Murie

Simon Murie is the founder of SwimTrek (www.swimtrek.com), which provides open-water swimming and coaching camps and holidays. He’s a qualified swim coach and an experienced swimmer, with a solo crossing of the English Channel to his name. He is passionate about introducing the joys of open-water swimming to the uninitiated as well as finding new locations for more experienced swimmers and triathletes.