This summer I was back in the UK and was delighted to hear that my sister had decided to take up triathlons. My sister used to be a County representative at swimming, though is now 25 and has been out of that scene for a good 10 years.
She was excited to do her first open water swim, a 750m swim in 13 degrees C water (good thing she had bought a new wetsuit) followed by a 5km run. Despite her previous level of swimming she was nervous about putting her face in the cold water even with my partner Michelle along for a practice session 2 days before the event.
The water was dark and murky. Despite knowing that there was nothing in the water to worry about, she became increasingly anxious the closer we got to the start of the swim. Here's what we did:
- We started with some easy breaststroke to feel comfortable with the buoyant sensation of the wetsuit and the cold of the water. I encouraged her to breathe deeply and focus on her exhalation, like she was almost sighing heavily.
- We then started doing some head-up water-polo-style strokes which, admittedly, she was quite good at. We had a strong wind-chop blowing us down the beach which meant that, on the way down the beach, she was sheltered and felt quite comfortable.
- Eventually I encouraged her to put her head down for as long as possible while swimming normal freestyle. I stayed very close, with Michelle on her other side. One fear my sister had was being able to see down in the water (though we were only about ~1.5m deep). She was also afraid of seeing deep, out-to-sea, when her head was under the water (i.e. off to her side). Having me by her side provided a distraction - I asked her to focus on either her hands or on mine as I swam beside her.
- Our first attempt lasted for 10 to 12 strokes, but she had done these without releasing any air under the water.
- We decided to do 5 to 6, 12-stroke swims where she had to blow bubbles when her face was under the water. By attempt number 4 she was beginning to feel a lot more comfortable and it was time to turn back into the head-chop! This made breathing and sighting MUCH more difficult and MUCH more challenging.
- I asked her to shorten her stroke and work to lift her arms higher over the water to get through the chop more effectively, in stark contrast to the long, smooth strokes we had been swimming previously, but she seemed to thrive on this challenge and actually swam better going into the chop from the wind.
What was very apparent was that she had suddenly gone into auto-pilot on the way back with respect to her breathing and fears and was more consumed with the challenge of getting through the waves. This was quite a relief as in all honesty they were very challenging conditions and I was worried that this would put her off completely.
While we also practised some drafting and sighting techniques within that first 30 mins (normally practising this number of skills all at once would be quite challenging and normally unproductive as the best way to improve is to really focus on one area of your stroke at any one time), I set these ALL purely as distraction exercises taking her thought process away from what she feared or lacked confidence with in order to address something else technically MORE challenging but at the same time lots of FUN. Lots of positive encouragement was the key to this session.
Experience learning to pop your face in the water for the very first time, trying open water swimming, is more about trust and encouragement than who's showing you the exercises.
Whilst it sounds terribly cheesy, it did bring us closer together and I would suggest that this is a skill you really need to try and practice with someone you trust and who has patience for you. It is a bit like learning to drive with your Mum or your Dad, sometimes it is great because they know more than you and have way more experience, but equally sometimes they're not the best people to help you learn how to drive. Whoever you choose to assist you, make sure you feel totally comfortable with them.
Hopefully you can relate to my sister's position and draw from what helped her. Remember keep it simple, keep it fun, take the process slowly, and steadily progress when YOU are ready to do so. Most importantly, take someone with you who you think can guide you through this whole experience.