Open water may just be our world’s greatest playground and teacher; a wide-open space for fitness, for connection, for exploration, and a source of food and air. However, the ocean’s vastness and dynamic nature can be both welcoming and daunting. While we certainly are not fish, or even fish-like, the open water is here for us to enjoy.
The know: Understanding the water
Whether a freshwater lake, a river or rugged open ocean, each body of water demands an understanding of it before hopping in. Your confidence in open water will come from greater understanding of what the body of water is doing and how that affects you in the water as a swimmer.
Creating a safe swim is where you should begin. Things to look for:
-A designated swim zone
-A lifeguard on duty
-Area with minimal boats or other vessels nearby
Take inventory of your surroundings. This awards you familiarity of your surroundings throughout your swim. Choose a few large, fixed landmarks to use as reference points, that way when in water you can more easily chart progress, maintain course and enter/exit in a safe spot that you choose. In short, identifying, and understanding your surroundings will provide peace of mind when out there trying to navigate.
Lastly, take a minute to check the water’s conditions at hand. Notice if there is current pushing one direction, in which case you’ll want to compensate your swim course accordingly. On windier days, identify the direction of the wind and mentally prepare and expect for choppier water while swimming. If there is surf, take mental notes of where the waves are breaking, as well as how often. Each of these points allow you to paint the picture of what you can expect in the water before getting in, leaving less room for surprises out there.
The how: Planning your pursuit
Tapping into a calm, peaceful energy is imperative to building confidence and comfort. This begins with your breath. Tune in to the rise and fall of your breathing. As you inhale, say inhale in your head. As you exhale, say exhale in your head. In the most basic sense, this creates a singular focus on the one thing necessary for life. Your breathing mechanics will create efficiency and ideal body posturing in the water. Aim to maintain a relaxed, easy breathing cycle, akin to how you would breathe while on land - a small sip of air in, followed by a relaxed sigh to exhale out. This will become your equilibrium in the water and the focus to go back to regain composure when need be. If you find your mind wandering, focus on your breath, saying inhale as you breathe in and saying exhale as you breathe out.
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The why: One step at a time
The singular goal should always be to create a positive experience, and it’s always better to share that with others. Find a partner or swim group to venture out with. Having partners with you provides a sense of security, camaraderie and structure for each swim. Never swim alone!
Create a progression, beginning with time in the pool to build a base, followed by structured focuses for your upcoming open water sessions. Knowing each day can be so different - with the water, with your mental state - it’s important to have flexibility with your expectations for each swim. Your process and progress are completely subjective. Each time you suit up should be seen as a success.
Step one is simply walking into the water slowly until waist deep after you’ve taken mental notes on your surroundings and the waters conditions. And now back to the breath. Stay in that spot until you find your equilibrium and feel confident to continue on. Deeper is not always better. If you are on the riper side, plan to stay in a shallow zone for your first swim or more, to give your brain the sense of control it may need to feel safe in the open water at first. If you feel uncomfortable or are short of breath, simply tune back in to the quality of your breathing. If you’re unable to find equilibrium still, shift back to standing in the shallows and reacquaint with your check sheet of your surroundings, the waters conditions and then again, your breath. This is progress and commonly happens to swimmers at some point in their open water journey.
This may sound obvious, but, every day will provide a unique experience. The only way to get comfortable in variable conditions is to swim in variable conditions. It’s easy to shy away from the water on days when it may be colder than you’re used to or choppier, for instance. Utilize these days as opportunities to build skill and comfort in the open water. If you have an upcoming race and you’re presented with tough conditions, you’ll be better suited for the challenge because of your practicing through all sorts of conditions. Equally important is to swim in different bodies of water when able, broadening your depth of knowledge of the open water. It’s natural to want to stay in your comfort zone and swim in the same location each time, however it’s exceedingly unlikely that the location that you race will be/feel the same.
A great way to do this, when you have limited access to open, water is to swim from different entry and exit points at the same body of water.
More time in the water, the better
There is a distinct learning curve to open water swimming and you have the tools to get there. Plan open water swims as often as you can. After your first open water experiences, you can take those memories and feelings out of the water to mentally prepare for the next swims. Most importantly, try to enjoy every moment in the water. Open water swimming can be the perfect practice of being present.
Long may you swim,
The Swim Mechanic