You’ve spent the winter working on your swim fitness and freestyle stroke in the pool, only to find yourself feeling very panicked during the first few moments of your open water swim in the great outdoors. Don’t worry- this is perfectly normal even for stronger pool swimmers. This anxiety can be due to a number of things such as the thought of swimming in murky water, deep water, cold water, rough water, claustrophobia from others swimming close to you or the fear of marine life and other submerged objects. The key is to first recognise that you have an anxiety with swimming in the open water, then find a strategy to overcome it that works for you. Becoming more relaxed will enable you to focus on developing your stroke and skills to suit a wide range of water conditions. At that point you’ll be able to feel liberated in the open water!
Breathing Out to Feel Relaxed
One of the most common stroke flaws I see is swimmers that hold their breath underwater. Some people feel that exhaling into the water will make them run out of air, however this could not be more untrue! By exhaling smoothly and constantly into the water, the lungs are cleared from CO2 and the shortness of breath feeling is greatly reduced. The buildup of CO2 causes a sense of anxiety and panic which becomes doubly worse in the alien environment of open water. For this reason, learning to exhale efficiently underneath the water whilst in the pool environment is your first step towards swimming confidently in the open water. Your exhalation should feel like a long steady sigh into the water. You can breathe out your nose, mouth or a combination of both. The key is to ensure a continuous flowing stream of bubbles starting as soon as you’ve finished your breath in.
Better exhalation is also good for your stroke technique as it reduces excess buoyancy in your torso, helping keep your legs higher in the water and your body position more streamlined, causing less drag and a more efficient stroke. The opposite, holding your breath, not only causes anxiety but also what we call ‘sinky leg syndrome’, increased drag and makes swimming freestyle really hard work!
Next time you have an open water swim and you are able to do a warmup prior to the start try some B3/5/7/3... (breath on the 3rd stroke then the 5th stroke and finally the 7th stroke and then back to 3, repeating this sequence a few times), ensuring you are continuously breathing out while your face is in the water. Once you have completed this sequence a few times you should be starting to feel more relaxed in the water.