Overcoming Fear in Open Water Swimming

Part 1 of  9 – Introduction

We can find a lot in books and on the internet from amazing swimmers who’ve accomplished big feats in open-water (OW). They are truly inspirational. But they can also seem to operate on a different level, in a different world, or at least seem totally fearless in their exploits.

I doubt that this is so because frankly, fear, in its various forms, is often the greatest challenge accomplished swimmers face during those big swims. Not many have shared how they have overcome their own fears on OW, and less talk openly about the fears they still deal with. But fear is a central part of what we swim with in OW and more than that, how we deal with it becomes one of the secrets of our enjoyment and passion for OW swimming. For us common swimming folk who need some encouragement in expanding into open-water, I would like to bring up this topic of fear in OW and present some ideas in a framework for overcoming it.

Open Water and The Pool Are Not The Same

First, it is helpful to consider that open-water swimming is distinctly different than pool swimming- we may use the same physical technique to execute a stroke, but the environment and the mindset and the objectives are quite different. One way of looking at it is that swimming pools are TAME. They are contained, controlled environments- they are intended to make the water experience as mild (well-within the comfort zone for humans) and consistent as possible. Within this controlled environment a pool swimmer is freed up to simply focus on a certain distance or time or workout plan.

Open-water, on the other hand, is WILD. It is not (easily or reliably) contained nor controlled by humans. It is as varied and inconsistent as the weather and seasons and natural patterns that drive it all. A swimmer in OW does not have walls to conveniently mark distance or time and are subject to a lot more uncertainties and challenging features. Even when aiming for a certain accomplishment, the conditions outside her control get a major say in IF and HOW she will pursue her goal that day. OW often presents a swimmer with physically and mentally stressful conditions, also very complex conditions, which can really frustrate someone who is expecting OW to act like the local pool. Open-water swimming will require a different attitude, and different approach to finding enjoyment and higher performance in it. It does take courage to face new things, to encounter changes in our environment.

Courage Is A Skill

An open-water swimmer is CHOOSING to enter an alien aquatic environment that usually presents real dangers, and be quite different from day to day, hour to hour even. Courage is a requirement, but as I wrote in a previous essay, Courage Is A Skill that we can learn. It is not as mysterious and exclusive as we may have come to think. OW swimming is a perfect place to practice this skill. Underneath the strategy I will be encouraging you to work with your body and mind, and with your OW environment, to REMOVE fear and pain from swimming, while increasing intrigue and enjoyment. I will not present ways to increase your pride and toughness to endure more pain and boredom. I’m encouraging you to build your wisdom, skill and confidence to enjoy swimming in a wonderful but far-more-powerful-than-you open-water world. I propose this as ultimately a more successful, a more sustainable approach to swimming, for high performance now and for swimming far and smooth into your elder years.

Here are the topics covered in this series:

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