Life is like swimming in open water |

How To Mentally Prepare For An Open Water Swim

[I’m linking up with some other awesome triathlete ladies for Tri Talk Tuesday! They all have some great triathlon swim tips, so check them out!: You signed up for what?, The Tri Girl Chronicles and The Cupcake Triathlete.]

This is what the Cumberland River looked like last week. We have to swim in that river for our Olympic triathlon on July 28th.

How to mentally prepare for an open water swim |

There were literally TREES floating around in it.Every time I run or bike along the river, I say things like “I cannot believe we have to swim in that!”, or “What happens if a tree impales me?”, or “Do you think there is a dead body in there?”, or “Are you gonna wear a wetsuit? I am. I don’t want to get scratched by anything”, and “We’d better make sure our Tetanus shots are up to date.” Not to mention the fact that I’ve already decided that I’m not going to open my eyes under water.

Having grown up in New Jersey, I think you’ll be surprised to hear me say that I’d rather swim in the Hudson River than this one.

How to mentally prepare for an open water swim |

Today, when I was making my daily “this river is disgusting” observation, Davey stopped me mid sentence and said, “STOP. You’re psyching yourself out.” And he’s right. I mean, swimming is my strongest sport and I am now terrified to put my toe in that water without getting the proper vaccinations.

When you swim in a pool, the water is clear, there are designated lanes that keep you a safe distance away from other swimmers, you can stop at any point during your swim and the water is warm.

But when the water is… well, like this, it turns into a mental game. So, I’m taking Davey’s advice and I’m going to stop psyching myself out and turing the swim into something scary and impossible.


Here are 5 tips that have helped me, and I hope they’ll also help you, to mentally prepare for an open water swim.

1. Train Your Brain

How to mentally prepare for an open water swim |

When I tell people that I do triathlons, they usually say something like, “Oh, I’d never do one of those. I can’t swim.” Well… chances are, they CAN swim, but I’ll bet that for one reason or another, they’ve already made up their mind and decided that they can’t.

Your brain is a POWERFUL, amazing, imaginative and wonderfully created tool. Your brain has the power to take a simple idea and turn it into something wonderful or into something horrible. For example, I hate scary movies. Not because the movie itself is scary, but because once the scary idea is in my mind, my imagination takes over and goes into overdrive and creates scary scenarios and makes me feel like I’m living in that scary movie every time it gets dark outside.

When you notice your mind going down that road… and you know exactly what road I mean, STOP IT! I have noticed that if I simply stop my thought process before I start to wonder what creatures live in the Cumberland River or when I begin to picture how gross it’s going to be, I don’t psych myself out.

I mean, those 2 simple words, STOP IT, really work wonders. Check out this video for evidence:

So whether you’re grossed out by open water,  or afraid of swimming in a crowd or you’re worried that you won’t have the safety of the ends of the pool to hang onto when you get tired, training your brain to stop focusing on negative thoughts will help your open water swim be more enjoyable.

I have been repeating positive words and thinking happy thoughts and I’m surprised at how nice the Cumberland River looks now. 🙂

If you can’t think of anything positive or uplifting to think about, then distraction works great too! When I’m doing an open water swim and I start to think about how gross the water is, distraction keeps my mind busy and away from negative thoughts.


2. Train Your Body

Don’t underestimate the power of practice! If you train diligently and push yourself to become a more confident swimmer; if you do your swim specific strength training routine and work hard to build your swimming strength and endurance, you’ll be ready for race day… even if there are gross things in the water or if you get bumped by the other swimmers.

A strong mind and a strong body are the the foundation to helping yourself mentally prepare for an open water swim. When you know that you are strong and capable of swimming the distance of your triathlon, then you’ll be confident and less likely to worry or let your fears get the best of you. But if they do, give yourself a pep talk and decide to trust the fact that you’ve trained well and that you ARE prepared.


How to mentally prepare for an open water swim |

3. It’s Legal To Hang On To A Canoe

Maybe the thought of swimming your entire triathlon distance without stopping is what is scaring you. It is definitely a challenge to go from swimming back and forth in a pool and being able to stop whenever you want to swimming in the middle of a lake or river where you can’t see the bottom.

But don’t worry. It is legal in most races (check your race rules) to hang on to a canoe or a boat and catch your breath or take a few seconds to rest.

Sometimes having something to fall back on, or just knowing that you can stop if you need to, can make a ton of difference.

And just so you know, there is NO SHAME in hanging onto the boat. Read Davey’s story here.


4. Test The Water

How to mentally prepare for an open water swim | TwoTri.comGet in the water before the race. Even if you just splash some water on your face and arms, this will help your body get acclimated to the temperature so it won’t be so much of a shock when you run into freezing cold water.

For me, getting in the water before the race also helps me mentally deal with and overcome the yuck factor before I start swimming. It helps me overcome the fear of the unknown because the more I familiarize myself with something, the less scary it becomes. So by the time the race starts, I can concentrate on swimming because I’m not so freaked out about the water since I’ve already been in it.

It’s also a great idea to do a few open water swims before your race. Davey and I practice in an nearby lake and although it doesn’t have a current, it’s murky and cold… just like the Cumberland River. By “testing out the water” during your training, you’ll ease your anxiety and start to overcome your fear of the open water.

Practicing in open water is also a great way to improve your swim endurance and to prove to yourself that you can swim farther than you think without stopping. If you’re nervous about your first open water swim, try swimming in shallower water. That way, if you get tired or start to panic, you can stand up and rest, regain your composure and then keep on swimming.

5. Have A Plan, But Be Flexible

Maybe you’re nervous about the whole swimming in a crowd thing. Aside from swimming in a group during your training, or having someone swim next to you and bump into you on purpose, the best way to prepare for the crowd is to come to terms with the fact that you WILL get bumped.How to mentally prepare for an open water swim |

There are, however, places to swim where there is less traffic. Check out my post on 4 Tips To Help You Swim With Confidence for the prime spots to swim and then decide on what your game plan or strategy will be. Will you start a few seconds after everyone else has started or will you be the first one to sprint into the water? Will you stay towards the sides or brave the high traffic areas? What will you do if someone bumps you? How will you react when you start to get out of breath?

Having a strategy and answering these questions beforehand will help you feel prepared and ready for whatever happens during your triathlon. By deciding how you’ll react and what you’ll do if you get bumped or if you feel yourself start to panic will help decrease your anxiety of the unknown and will give you the assurance and confidence that you are well prepared.

For example, “If I get bumped or kicked, I’m going to stop and tread water for a second, take a deep breath and then keep swimming.” or “If I feel myself start to panic, I’m going to remind myself that I’ve trained well for this race and then I’m going to concentrate on my breathing pattern.”

While it’s great to have a plan, it’s also a good idea to remain flexible if something doesn’t go according to your plan or if something happens that you didn’t anticipate. Relax, go with the flow and do the best you can to overcome the challenge and keep moving forward.

How to mentally prepare for an open water swim |

So whether you are worried about what is floating around in the open water, you’re wondering if you have enough endurance to swim the whole distance without stopping, or you’re anxious about swimming in a crowd, make sure you train your brain and mentally prepare for your open water swim.


About Author

Trainer DaveyTrainer Davey is an Orange County personal trainer at heart, but has since moved to Nashville and taken on the new challenge of triathlon training. Of course, he misses his home of Surf City...but Music City ain't so bad either!View all posts by Trainer Davey →

  1. llh

    So my first sprint length triathlon was today (last summer I did a mini). That open water experience was NOTHING like what I’d practiced in a few times. The waves were HUGE and it was ridiculous. So much so that after the first 4 waves went they cancelled the swim portion of the tri. But…I made it through. Very slowly…but I didn’t panic and just kept moving. It worked. I made it. And thank goodness it wasn’t any longer than 1/4 mile! I have no idea how to actually ‘swim’ in that but just doing it was an accomplishment. And…as bad as it was, I’m glad my wave had to face the water so I could prove I could do it. Some humor for the day – as I was trying to unfog my goggles by holding onto a kayak halfway through, I somehow dumped him in the water and flipped the kayak. Ooooops! Guess my goggles were going to stay fogged up since at that point I just kept going.

    • Jess

      YOU ARE SO AWESOME!!! I bet it feels so good to look back and say that you made it through such a tough swim! I’m impressed! If you can make it through that, there’s nothing you can’t do! And I loved the story about you flipping the kayak 😉 Sounds like that triathlon was a very memorable one! Way to go!

  2. Courtney @The TriGirl Chronicles
    Courtney @The TriGirl Chronicles04-15-2014

    Great advice! The first one kills me. Whenever someone tells me they can’t do a triathlon because they can’t swim I respond with “I can’t really swim either, but I’ve always managed to get to shore and you can too.” Those negative thoughts, they can really do you in if you let them. The trick is not letting them =)

    • Jess Anderson
      Jess Anderson04-15-2014

      Thanks Courtney! And yes, I agree… I’ve seen some people swim the doggie paddle and backstroke REALLY fast! 🙂

  3. Amanda

    Good tips about swimming. I should have read this before my first disaster OWS! Glad I found you via the link up today with the other tri bloggers. And thanks again for the tank. I still wear it all the time to spin class when I teach! Cheers!

    • Jess Anderson
      Jess Anderson04-16-2014

      Thanks Amanda! I think most of our first OWS’s are a disaster 🙂 That murky water will always creep me out! SOOOOO glad you like the tank and are rockin it in spin class… YEAH!

  4. Jessica

    Loved this post so much that I shared it on my Favorite Fitness Reads post this week: Hope some of my readers will come check out your post!
    – Jessica

    • Jess Anderson
      Jess Anderson04-18-2014

      Woohoo! Thanks so much for sharing, Jessica! You’re AWESOME!