Whether it is your first triathlon or your fiftieth, you are going to have some anxiety; that’s natural. It’s a race! You should be excited, nervous, and anxious! To me there isn’t anything more exhilarating than when you have 100+ people standing on a beach, or in the water standing at a boat ramp, or on a dock waiting to dive in and the race announcer counts down and shoots the gun off for the start. There are so many thoughts that go through my head when I’m standing there….”Breath” “Focus” “It’s just me and the water” “Don’t stop, just go” “I hope my goggles are on tight enough” “Oh man I think I need to go to the bathroom again” (The list goes on). BUT even though those things go through your head, if you are prepared and know how to calm yourself and your thoughts, they will eventually disappear and it will be just be you and your race, not anyone elses.
Every race is going to be different – especially the swim portion. I started racing in Tri’s when I was stationed in Guam. We would practice in the clear blue, warm, open ocean and it never seemed like a threat when it came to the race, because I knew the environment that I was swimming in. Most races are in lakes or not so clear oceans and if it’s near the beginning of the Tri Season or the End, you may find them to be pretty cold, and sometimes you won’t have the opportunity to train in the environment you are racing in. There is one race I will never forget — for the mere reason that I did not finish it (DNF). I was in Seoul, South Korea and I had been training for months for the Detrox International Olympic Distance Championships. I felt so prepared, I had been swimming at the local pool, and ordered my wet suit; the water was predicted to be about 55 degrees that day and was mandatory. The only problem was I didn’t train in my wet suit. I jumped in the water at the start, as the only American in my heat, with about 75 other woman. After several bumps and pushes of fellow swimmers, I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath, and panic kicked in. I started hyperventilating, reaching for anything around me to hold on to, only to find nothing. My breath was getting shorter, the water was a freezing cold murky black in the Seoul River. I tried to swim, but was going nowhere. I dipped my head in the icy water and through my clear goggles couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. Darkness. I started ripping off my wetsuit in a panick to find my air as a Korean Lifeguard came over to me, held out his hand – said something I didn’t understand – and pointed to the dock. I shook my head yes and he helped me over. DNF; I gave up. It was the most humiliating and disappointing time of my race career.
I’ve since learned from my experience in the Seoul River that day. And to me there are a few things I have done to help with any race anxiety and getting over sometimes the hardest part — the swim
1. Be prepared pre-race. Become a USA Triathlon Member and they will send you a pretty awesome checklist of what to bring so you don’t forget something as simple as your shoes or socks.
2. If you plan on wearing a wetsuit — Train in it! It’s a totally different feeling to be in a wetsuit and if you aren’t prepared (like me), it could really hurt you for time or even not finishing. Poor some water in it before the race so the cold isn’t such a shock when you jump in and learn how your technique of swimming changes when in a wetsuit vs. a tri-suit. Just the boyancy alone is something to get used to.
3. Overcome the anxiety. You may not live near the location of the race and may not have the opportunity to swim in the open water prior to your event. Anxiety in the open-water is normally caused by outside factors in the water – depth, cold, not being able to see (if at all) and having other swimmers close to you. All of these factors lead to the same response – holding your breath. Holding your breath increases anxiety and can even cause panic (and may even end your race). Slow your breath down by stopping, relaxing yourself, or rolling on your back. You can also try to focus on your stroke, hand entry, nice and smooth – forget you’re in a race and focus on you. This weekend my Fiance experienced his first open water swim (in fact, his first Tri), the water was cold and murky and the air was even colder. He started with the mens group a couple of minutes before me and to my surprise I had caught up to him and noticed he was doing breast stroke. I stopped to make sure he was doing okay and he said he couldn’t catch his breath when he put his head in the water. A whole new experience for him to swim like that in a cold, dark lake and not in our clear, warm pool we had been training in. He didn’t give up, and was able to get through the anxiety and panic by slowing down his stroke and taking long deep breaths to focus — the rest of his race went really smooth!
I continually need to remind myself, in no matter what race, anxiety happens and when you can get over it, the finish line is so much better then never starting at all.