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Why pool swimmers fear open water – and what to do about it if you do

This weekend I was at The Swim Expo in Manchester where I made a presentation about open water swimming. It was great to have swimming legend Mark Foster on hand to introduce me at the beginning and to field questions at the end. Mark even had a question for me that went something like this:
“How do you get over that fear of being out of your depth and not being able to see the bottom in open water?”
Just in case anyone doesn’t know, Mark Foster set the world 50m freestyle record multiple times and used to cover the distance in less than 22 seconds, yet he still gets nervous in water when he can’t see the bottom.
Interestingly, I hear quite often from pool swimmers that they are nervous about open water swimming. In fact, there seems to be an inverse correlation between someone’s competence in the pool and their confidence in open water – in other words, good pool swimmers are often more nervous about open water than people who don’t swim so well.
It’s not just the depth that makes them nervous. Other worries are getting ill, the temperature, bumping into unseen things in the water, swimming through weeds and putting their feet in river slime.
As someone who has done plenty of pool swimming before I ventured into open water, I have a lot of sympathy and have experienced many of these worries myself (and still do sometimes!). If you’ve spent a lot of time in the pool then you associate swimming with a stable, sterile, disinfected and temperature-controlled environment. But open water swimming is the opposite. While the swimming is pretty similar, mentally you need to be in a totally different place. This is, naturally, one of the attractions of open water swimming but it makes it very understandable why regular pool swimmers might be more nervous than average.
However, if you are already a strong pool swimmer you will have plenty of advantages once you overcome your open water nerves and if you want to race you will probably quickly find yourself near the front. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  1. Acknowledge that there is no shame in being nervous, having worries or even being afraid of open water. It’s probably a good thing to be nervous. It helps keep you safe.
  2. Plan your open water swimming to manage the risks. Swim with other people, use a tow-float, swim next to a support boat, swim in places with known water quality and limit your time in the water according to the temperature and your experience.
  3. Let other people know if you’re nervous. Ask the lifeguards to keep an extra eye on you and tell your swimming companions to stay close.
  4. If you have specific worries such as what you might stand in or touch consider things that could help you such as wetsuit socks or gloves.
  5. Don’t try to do everything at once. Keep your first swims short and stay close to the shore until your confidence builds.
  6. If you find yourself becoming anxious while swimming try to distract yourself by concentrating on your breathing or a specific technique point you’ve been working on.
  7. Remember, a big part of open water swimming is the joy of being outside. Remind yourself of how lucky you are.
  8. Swim outside as often as you can. The more you do it, the more confident you will become.
  9. Read H2Open Magazine every issue for more confidence boosting tips, training advice and inspirational stories.