Q: "How do you overcome panicky feelings during an open water swim?" - Pat; Westminster.
A: It is said that familiarity breeds indifference, which is exactly what you want when it comes to open water swimming. People often panic in open water because they don't know what to expect. To do all of your open water training in a swimming pool is like trying to learn to snorkel by wearing a mask and fins in your bath tub; it's just not the same.
For starters, unless you're lucky enough to be swimming in the crystal clear Caribbean Sea, visibility is typically poor in open water. There's no black line to follow and no lap lanes to keep you, and the dozens of people splashing and thrashing around you, swimming in a straight line. The shoreline, if visible, may not run parallel to the course, and there is marine life and aquatic vegetation to deal with, as well as the possibility of current and chop.
Temperature is another factor. If you're like me, you spend most of the year swimming in an indoor pool that is a balmy 83 degrees, whereas open water temperatures are often a good deal cooler and can even plummet into the fifties or sixties. A wetsuit will not protect you from the shock of these frigid temperatures. Some people believe that a wet suit will keep you dry; this is false. You will get wet in a wetsuit. As you wade in, cold water will seep in through the openings at the arms and neck, taking your breath away. According to scuba.about.com, water conducts heat away from the body about twenty times faster than air does. A wetsuit works by slowing heat loss underwater by trapping a thin layer of water inside the wetsuit. The water is rapidly heated by your body and, if the suit fits properly, the warm layer of water will not circulate away, keeping you warmer than you otherwise would be.
But the wetsuit itself can cause a problem if you're not accustomed to wearing one. The tight-fitting neoprene might create an uncomfortable sensation of being squeezed or compressed, making you feel like you can't draw a full breath. And, as the comedian Mitch Hedberg said of wearing turtlenecks, once the wetsuit is zipped and secured at the neck, it feels a bit like getting strangled by a really weak guy all day.
To prepare for an open water swim, be sure to conduct as many training sessions as possible in open water. Quite often, the venue will host several practice swims in the months leading up to an event. Area lakes, rivers and beaches may also offer safe places to swim with a friend - remember to never swim alone. If you will be wearing a wetsuit, be sure to don one during your practice sessions. Also, if you are new to open water swimming, take up a position to the rear or sides of the pack, staying clear of the more experienced or aggressive swimmers. Finally, consider taking a yoga class to learn calming breathing techniques and develop mental focus.
The more you swim in open water, the more familiar it will become to you. By removing the fear of the unknown you reduce the likelihood of panicking, which will allow you to focus on enjoying your swim and feeling safe and confident in the water.
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