How to Manage Fear of the Open Water

Updated: May 28, 2019



Swimming in the water can be an incredibly enjoyable, almost spiritual experience. But for some, just the thought brings very legitimate fears. If you can learn to manage your fear and break the swim into manageable sections, soon you too will start to love open water swimming.


Acknowledging fear of open water swimming


You know that feeling when you're either stuck in place, frozen, or you want to run away screaming?? That's your hind monkey brain taking over. Your monkey brain is a highly developed emotional machine that is stronger than your logical brain. It has evolved to keep you alive and it is best to not fight it because you won't win, but you can outsmart it.


You are a rational, thinking being. Begin with acknowledging your fears, put a name to them and accept that they are there.


When it wants to rant, let it. Pull yourself to the side and, like a 3-year old with a temper tantrum, it will wind down in a few minutes. The key is to recognize that all the negative thoughts - the pit in the bottom of your stomach - that isn't you.


Your hindbrain is going to throw out a bunch of reasons why not to do something, layered thick with emotion. Listen to it and try to understand why you are feeling fearful. Your hindbrain finds it easier to take control of something it doesn't understand. When you accept that you are fearful you can begin to understand why you're afraid. This begins the process of engaging your thinking brain.


Taking control of fear in the open water


Take back control from your hindbrain and engage your thinking brain by breaking the swim down into manageable pieces, set some goals and define the situation. Here are 3 ways to start taking control of your fear in the water:


1. Get control of your breathing.

This is critical, especially once you start swimming. Try beginning with 7/11 breathing: a quick (but not rapid) seven-count inhale followed by an eleven-count exhale. It doesn't need to be exact; only that the exhale is longer than the inhale by a few counts.


2. Break it down.

Rather than imagining the whole swim as one big thing to tackle, separate it out into smaller, manageable chunks (I.e. buoy to buoy, or 5min intervals).


3. Set goals for each section.

It could be performance oriented, like a set time or pace. Or, try tricking your brain with other markers like, sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” until you reach 75. Whatever your marker is, these small accomplishments and distractions kick your thinking brain into high gear, forcing your hindbrain into retreat.


Once you engage your thinking brain, you can control your hindbrain better by understanding what makes you afraid. Many times, it's the result of an imagination run rampant. Imagination is great, it can help you to visualize the positive ways your swim can go.


Preparing for your next Open Water Swim


Mentally walk yourself through your swim - every step, every detail - from how the water will feel to the timing of your breathing. Remember your goals along the way and check them off as you progress through the course in your imagination. Think about where the sun will be, how your competitors will behave and what the rest of the conditions will be.


Armed with the perfect course in mind, you're ready to tackle your fears. Of course, these fears still come charging up from the back of our brains trying to wrestle control for no rational reason. The key here is to take a moment and let your hindbrain rant, recognize what it might be trying to say, and either address it, if possible, or refocus, breathe, and start thinking about your goals. Repeat this as many times as needed. Eventually your fears will settle down, sliding away and letting you enjoy your swim.


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