Open Water swimming can be extremely daunting, event to the most experienced athletes. We asked 2012 Olympic swimmer, Sophie Allen, on how she overcame her fears and grew to love the open water after injury left her unable to compete in the pool.
As a lifelong pool swimmer, open water never even occurred to me until injury took me away from competitive medley.
After a year of finding my way back to the sport of swimming; friends of mine pestered me til success about going to the local open water swimming facility.
Before arriving for my first ever lake swim I didn’t really think about it, I’m a confident swimmer, one of the best in world, swimming in a lake should be no problem at all.
I was wrong. On arrival I saw the size of the lake (a full circuit round the buoys being 800m so not the biggest you've ever seen) and to me this was a lot bigger than a swimming pool, and significantly deeper; not to mention the drop in water temperature to what I’d always been used to. Suddenly my heart began to race. I felt like a fool for having not thought about this beforehand.
All the doubt flooded in regarding my own abilities, how do I warm up? What if my wetsuit isn't right? What if I get into trouble or am uncomfortable in the middle of the lake? I had mentally defeated myself before I even entered the water.
Somehow I managed to go through with it and got myself in there - eventually really enjoying the experience, with it now becoming my new passion. But there were a few pointers that made the difference for me.
Go with a friend - That very first time would have been unsuccessful if my two triathlete friends weren't alongside me. I would have turned around and got straight back into my car. But they didn’t let me. They gave me that little bit of encouragement, such as tips on how to make my wetsuit comfortable by making sure there was flexibility around the shoulder. How to get into the water without it taking my breath away, and then the best approach when you’re in the water… Swimming alongside somebody, or behind them so you don't have to focus on sighting or where you are, just keeping with them, having that someone by your side.
Focusing on simply swimming not where you are - If we’re being logical, the fact is you're just swimming, whether you're in the world's biggest lake, a swimming pool or even the bath - it’s all the same activity. I found focusing all my thoughts and energy on my technique, just like we all do when we go training in swimming pools, meant I didn’t have enough time to be worrying about the fact I was no longer in a swimming pool, I was focused on the productive side of things. Know your weaknesses and use this to distract your brain from worries we can’t control.
Enter an event - It’ll give you a time limit on your goal. Obviously give yourself preparation time before an event to get used to open water swimming, to be going regularly and hopefully getting to a stage of enjoyment when you're there. But challenge yourself by entering an event, this will not only motivate you to go that first time but to continue going and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Distance Training - If you've entered an event, what distance have you have entered; ultimately you are going to be needing to swim that distance without stopping. Ask a friend how far one circuit of the local open water facility is; for me 800m. Ensure you can swim 800m without needing to stop in a swimming pool. It’ll give you piece of mind knowing that is one less thing to worry about - you already know you can swim the distance!
These were the main things that helped me transfer from a pool swimmer who had been in her comfort zone for a long time, to challenging myself in the open water world - complete with enjoyment!