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Are You Fit Enough to Swim in the Open Water

Strong physical and mental fitness is important for success in open water swimming


David Miner
“TRAIN THE MIND AND BODY FOR SUCCESS”


You’re a Masters swimmer, on a team with a coach, attending practice
three to four times per week and getting in a decent bike ride every
weekend. You’re able to do SCY freestyle workouts on a 1:40 base,
swim the mile at most meets, and typically swim 3500-4000 yards
per practice. You hear about this open water race coming to your
area and get excited because you’ve always had an interest in open
water swimming but have never taken the time to give it a try. It’s
only a 2-mile race and you think, what the heck, I can swim 2-miles,
I do it every day at swim practice. You sign up, swim a couple extra
practices, and show up on race day thinking you’re ready to have a
great swim. However, the surface conditions are choppy, the water is
dark colored, and the race turn buoys look a mile apart. You’re
suddenly wondering if you’re really physically and mentally fit enough
​to swim the race and anxieties build?

Swimming in the open water is vastly different than swimming in a very controlled environment like a pool. Pools typically feel very safe with their clear water, calm surface conditions, lifeguards sitting high up on their chairs watching, walls to cling to or push off of, and a nice black line on the bottom to follow. There are no critters swimming around or currents pushing on you. The water temperature is consistent from one end to the other and there are no waves breaking in your face. You can probably stand up on each end and you can see the bottom clearly. Swimming out in the open water, whether it’s the ocean, a lake, or a river, none of what you’re comfortable with in the pool may exist making both your physical and mental conditioning an extremely important factor for your safety and fun.

The open water environment brings with it many different characteristics that a swimmer must understand, be aware of, and accept. Building both a mentally strong mind and a physically strong body helps you to operate in a tougher and much different environment. So, how do you know if you’re physically fit enough to swim in the open water? That can be a tough question to answer at first and something you may not even know until you’re actually swimming in the open water. But, there are things you can do to be ready.

Training the body is the easier part. Building strength and endurance through swim workouts, weight workouts, biking, running, etc. are all great and important. Having good cardiovascular fitness is essential for pushing through surf conditions or swimming in current. Strength provides endurance to make it from buoy to buoy with no walls to rest on and to push through the start of a race where there are a pack of swimmers all racing to the first turn buoy. Building your body to withstand the rigors of swimming in the open water is a key element to success and to have fun. Work with your coach or a personal trainer telling them about your open water swimming goals. Use USMS’s online open water workouts training section to train better in the pool for open water swimming.

Your body is strong and you can swim for a long time without stopping, but what about the mind? Training the mind, well, that’s a little bit harder than the body but just as essential for safety, success, and fun. The open water is no place for debilitating anxiety or panic. Critters swimming around, not being able to see the bottom, not knowing what’s below, swimming in a pack of swimmers at a race start, choppy surface conditions, etc. all can weigh heavy on the mind creating anxiety and fear. So, how do you strengthen the mind to deal with these open water situations?

Two of the best things you can do are to one; educate yourself about the open water environment where you’re swimming and second; practice swimming in the open water. Educating yourself and knowing what to really expect changes your mindset. Knowing how the wind affects the water gives you knowledge on when conditions are calm or rough. If you’re scared of sharks and learn that sharks don’t frequent the area, your anxiety eases. Knowing is huge part of understanding. As Baba Dioum said, “For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Taking the time to learn and understand your environment reduces fears and anxieties and allows for more enjoyment.

Practicing and training in the open water on a regular basis is essential for getting comfortable and building the skills necessary to swim in an array of conditions. Getting comfortable breathing in very choppy conditions, feeling a current push or pull on you, swimming closely packed with other swimmers, not being able to see or touch the bottom…all train your mind (as well as your body) to adapt to the conditions. The more you do it, the more you’ll adapt and the more mentally comfortable you’ll be.

So, get out there and go to regular open water practices, take an open water clinic, learn about the environment and build the best mind and body fitness you can so that when you get to a race or open water swim, success and a good time abound.