FEATURES,  View from the Water

Don’t be intimidated by triathletes

We’ve had a few phone calls and emails recently from people who would like to explore open water swimming but are anxious about some or other aspect of it.
We’ve looked at some of the causes (and suggested solutions) for open water anxiety over the last couple of years. These range from dealing with the cold, not being able to see, being out of your depth or far from the shore, fighting off pond weed and sea weed or standing on creepy crawlies (see Overcome your Fears for more on this). One we haven’t yet discussed is intimidation by other swimmers, which was the theme of some of those phone calls. Some potential swimmers are put off open water swimming because of the perceptions they have of people already doing it.
Anyone who’s been involved in open water swimming for a while will know there is almost never any need for such anxieties. Mostly, open water swimmers are inclusive, friendly and helpful, even if they’re triathletes.
But look at it for a moment from the point of view of someone turning up for their first ever open water swim either with a group or at an ‘official’ open water venue. The chances are, especially if it is an organised venue with fees and safety cover, the majority of the existing swimmers will be triathletes (many venues opened originally to cater for triathletes – the ‘pure’ swimmers came later).
There’s no suggestion here that triathletes set out to intentionally intimidate people new to open water swimming. But let’s face it (and with only a small apology to our triathlete readers), they can look intimidating. They tend to arrive in expensive cars or on even more expensive bikes; they’re often tanned and trim and look way fitter than most swimmers; they have tattoos and tee-shirts proclaiming the unbelievable distances they’ve swum, cycled and run and they have brand new wetsuits with lots of go-faster stripes and velocity strakes on them. Before entering the water they will swallow a precisely formulated energy gel and they will stand a carefully calibrated protein and carbohydrate recovery drink on the bank for consumption immediately after swimming. They will probably be wearing some kind of futuristic device that keeps track of their heart rate, stroke rate, speed, distance swum and location on the surface of the planet to within a few millimetres. This will be wirelessly connected to a computer where all this data is logged, analysed and fed back to coach along with measures for sleep quality, work stress and overall motivation. They will run like Mo Farah and cycle like Bradley Wiggins, or at least look as if they’re capable of such feats.

(Actually, these triathletes are also very fast swimmers)
So when you, prospective swimmer, turn up with your old and stretched swimming costume and favourite but scratched pair of goggles it’s quite understandable that you might feel a little underprepared.
But fear not. The factors and attributes that make those triathletes fast on land do not serve them so well in the water. Those muscled legs will sink low in the water, slowing them down, while the absence of body fat allows the cold to seep in quickly. Their established formula of effort in equalling speed out that works so well in cycling and running will fail miserably with swimming as they flail their arms and thrash their legs in a spectacular display of fitness that results in minimal forward propulsion.
All you need to do is slip gracefully into the water and swim effortlessly into the distance. The triathletes will be in awe both with your swimming skills and ability to cope with the water temperature.
More seriously, if you are nervous about going open water swimming for the first time see if you can find a venue that has a coach attached and book a one-to-one or small group session for your first visit. Or find a venue that will allow you to take a coach along with you. It will be worth the investment.  A good coach will allow you to explore open water at your own pace and will most likely have worked with many swimmers before who’ve shared the same anxieties.

Check out our Swimming Coaches page to see if you can find a swim coach near you.
p.s. Small confession: I’ve been known to do the odd triathlon and before starting H2Open Magazine I did some writing for Triathlete’s World.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.