Sunday, May 25, 2008

Open Water Freak-Outs PSA

Today I went with SW Tri Gal, Bones, Sweet Baboo, and others to Cochiti Lake to get in my first long open water swim of the season.

The lake was around 57 degrees, and I wore my long-sleeved wetsuit for the first time.

I turned back and only finished a mile of the swim. It was my first cold open water swim of the season, and every year the first one of the season is always shorter than I planned. That first time your face goes into the icy water and takes your breath away. Oh-h-h-h-h-h-h!

Cold water, when your face hits it, causes your breathing and heart rate to increase, which your brain reads as panic. When that happens, you're supposed to relax and just concentrate on swimming smoothly and slowly and breathing slowly and deeply. Usually within the first 400 meters you body starts to adjust to the temperature but oh, how long that first 400 meters seems!

Your brain's first line of defense in protecting you from dehydration, low blood sugar, or hypothermia is to start send you a message: STOP THIS! STOP NOW! TURN BACK. QUIT! TURN BACK NOW! Each of us hears this differently. For some of us, it's a tiny voice of despair that whispers, "Oh, I can't do this! I'll never be able to do this!" I at remember my first open water swim, I actually forgot how to swim at the start.

You can practice to overcome it and become mentally strong. Every now and then, it gets the better of me, like today, the first cold open water swim of the season. But Friday is a different day, and then there's the Friday after that...with practice, you learn to overcome the despair and the freakouts.

I'm going to be doing it every Friday until we leave for Coeur D'Alene, and at least one time there, too. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I'm saying this directly to anyone who has freaked out about swimming in open water: I promise you it gets better. The best part is that the side effects from being mentally tough are that you start getting mentally tough in other situations, too. You start thinking things to yourself like, "I swam a mile in an ice-cold lake! I think I can start that training course! I can tell that jerk that I don't like the way she talks to me!"

Or change jobs.

or Whatever.

But anway. Another reason for practicing long swims are that there are some unpleasant aspects to doing a forward crawl in a lake for 4000 meters. You have to practice long, open water swims so that you can experience and deal with them. Friday I'll be administering body glide in strategic places, and cutting two slits in the front of the neck of my suit. I did this in my old sleeveless wetsuit and it made a huge difference in my comfort.

Added later: I should have asked if anyone has any open-water swim advice to offer, go ahead and put it here.



  1. AYUP! That first splash is the hardest! You definitely get used to it though, and before you know're an old pro. Or just me.

  2. My first experience in a wetsuit and cold water last year was about this time of the year in Lake Michigan - take your breath away it does, I COMPLETELY forget every single thing I learned in regards to swimming, I think that knowledge got sucked out or frozen when my face hit the water... but I kept at it each week and eventually, you learn to tolerate it... now the slits in the neck of the wetsuit... BRILLIANT, its the one place I feel very constrained in that piece of rubber.

  3. I have asthma also (I think you do too) and that compounds that breathless feeling. Then you wonder if it's panic,a real asthma attack or the response to the cold water. Oy!

    A lifeguard told me that if you can submerge your face under water and hold it there for as long as you can stand it that it will help with your acclimation process. He also told me that if you can totally sit under the water for a bit that your whole warm up process will go much better. I did that the second time I went OWS and that gasping reflex went away much quicker.

    I have heard that if your mind does start to panic that if you wiggle your fingers as you bring your arm out of the water it will help to distract you and calm you down. I did this during one short race and it was amazing how it snapped my thoughts away from panic and towards swimming.

  4. My every open water swim starts with me certain I can't do it. I have to remind myself that I really do know how to swim.

    As far as advice goes - get in the water, pull the suit away from your neck and let it fill with water, stay put treading water while you pee in the suit, introduce your face to the water and take a few strokes, tread water for a little longer - then start your swim. The acclimation process makes a huge difference and letting the water in the suit warm up is very helpful - however you do it.

  5. Thanks Geekgirl, for this post. I registered for IM WI this year, tried my first OW Swim last week, and couldn't decide whether to go to the ER or the local mental health crisis center afterwards---"traumatic" is not to strong a word. Have you thought about combining your counseling skills with your IM experience? There would be a market! Anyway, thanks for this reminder that I am not alone in the OW freakout dept...and thanks to everyone for all the tips. I'm going back for more tomorrow.

  6. You are lucky to have open water so close by. Great way to acclimate.
    Damn that "vagus" nerve which doesn't allow us to put our face in the water without that little voice telling us it's "wrong, wrong, wrong!!"

    4000 yards in a warm pool just doesn't cut the mustard, hmm? Damn.

  7. Had my first open water swim in a half IM last week, and completely freaked out. The swim is my strong suit, but I was convinced that I was going to have to drop out of the race. I even went as far as to unzip my wetsuit for a minute, and then did heads-up freestyle until I realized that I was,in fact, not going to drown.

  8. Wow! I am training for a weenie sprint triathlon and I wrote a similar entry in my blog last week. The cold water really did freak me out, physically and mentally. I feel so much better knowing even veterans of IMs have the same response.

  9. You're a better swimmer than I am so I won't put down any suggestions. But you
    can bet I'm taking notes. Thank you for putting this up on your blog. I have
    panicked in open water swims before. This is really great advise for me.

  10. I had my first OW sim last weekend and the temp was 46. I swear I felt everything that you did.

  11. It's definitely a hard thing to get used to cold open water swims. I usually pee in my wetsuit sometime during the beginning 400 meters if I can't manage to calm down.

    I'm sure you've heard this already, but last year's CDA IM was really windy & the water was choppy. It made a lot of triathletes nauseous during the IM. One friend ate half a drammamine before the start to make it not so bad. It worked for her.


  12. Keep one hand in front of your face at all times. This is the best tri-advice I've ever received. Think 'catch-up drill' and you'll never have your goggles knocked off or get a bloody nose. Also, at CDA start toward the back and off to the right side, then creep in as it thins out. It's damn cold but you'll forget about it within the first few minutes.

  13. That panic reaction is something else. It is interesting that it can take you by surprise even when you're expecting it!! Thank you for the tips on overcoming it. (And thanks for all the specifics you include with your posts. They help me figure things out and make it easier for me to imagine doing the big races.) You rock!

  14. Yeah, Don't follow Brian, he swims crooked :)

  15. I understand what you were going through. I too had my first open water swim on Saturday and it was 52-54 degrees. Yikes.

    The first 200 was rough. I am glad I learned how to doggy paddle. I really wasn't sure what to expect. The next 1800 yards were good. I got out of the water, ran a little bit and got back in for another 2000 yards. That was tough. My mind was really starting to wander.

    I remember singing "Oh McDonald Had a farm". I couldn't think of any farm animals though...?? I knew it was almost time to get out. I hope CDA warms up!!

  16. Uh, just for the record, I had a mini freakout right in the middle of the swim. I rolled on my back and just talked myself out of it..then started counting strokes. That always helps me. "I have control over my thoughts" I tell will conquer on Friday..

  17. There is no place for me to practice open water swimming within an hour's drive, although if I want to drive an hour or more, I do have options. Consequently, I've never learned not to panic if I'm not in a wetsuit. this is a problem in Texas, which doesn't have a lot of wetsuit-legal tri swims!

    My technique for an open water swim (with wetsuit, of course) is to start by checking that I still can't drown myself. I try to stay under water as long as I can and when the wetsuit pulls me back to the surface despite my efforts, I deem the experiment a success. My wetsuit works, I will not drown, and I can proceed.

    Lame, I know. But until I either have more time or someplace a little closer to practice, it's what works for me.

  18. I spent four months training for my first sprint triatalon only to have my heart defibrillator to shock me 3 xs in the water. Thank goodness the practice was in the pool and not in the lake. I still want to do these and my doctor has changed my defibrillator to only shock me if I get my my heart rate up to 210. It was set on 190. I
    am not sure if I should only enter contests that are in pools or just forgetr it. Any suggestions. My doctor says I can do anything I feel like, I just haven't mustard up the nerve again to compete.

    Laurel 50 yr old wanting to keep fit and enjoying the comraderie that triathalons support.

  19. You didn't leave me a way to contact you directly, so I'll have to do it here. Wow. I have to say this is a first! Do you know if your heart rate went that high because of the novelty and the experience or because of the effort?

    If your doctor has told you that you can do whatever you want, then start gently. When you get into the pool, try breast stroking first with your head out of water, or even warming up with a kick board. Quite often, what makes our heart rate increase, if it isn't the coldness of the water, it might be the part where you put your face in the water. To help out with this, you want to put yourself in a low threat situation and gently work your way up.

    You're going to want to train carefully to avoid having your heart rate go so high. Focus on races that don't have a cutoff so that you can take your time and enjoy yourself. As you get fitter, your heart rate will drop.

    Another possibility, if you aren't able to overcome the swimming issue, is duathlons. Are you familiar with them?

    Anway, these are my thoughts. I'm not an MD, of course, so I always defer to the folks that went to med school for 8 years.

    Write me back and let me know how things go.


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