How Mindfulness Can Heal Your Fear of the Triathlon Swim
This week is a guest post from fellow author, triathlon coach, and this weeks Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete Podcast guest Ali Meeks. Ali shares with us some great information from her new book: Conquer Your Fear of the Triathlon Swim.
While not often talked about, fear of the triathlon swim is actually a lot more common than many people may think. Often times this fear gets mixed up and jumbled into the emotions and jitters of race day morning. But when going through my triathletes post-race review session, it often comes out that the athlete was extremely scared of the swim.
They “kinda, sorta found reasons not to do the open water swim practice” or they weren’t able to get as many practices in due to sewage overflow (this is common in Pittsburgh), rain, or fast currents (and they were secretly massively relieved to not have to go).
These are real issues, that we absolutely can help you get past to ENJOY the open water swim!
Before we jump over to Ali here, I just wanted to let you know that August 28- September 7,2020 I’m launching my brand new Monthly Strength Training for Triathlon Performance program! If you sign up this week and use the code:
You’ll get 15% off LIFETIME for the program, which is regularly $30/month. You can check it out HERE.
Now, let’s help you conquer the fear of the triathlon swim! (
Many triathletes don't just have pre-race jitters on race day, but they also fear the swim. Here's how to conquer your fear of the triathlon swim!
Mind and body control might sound like something from Star Trek, but they’re critical to fear-free swimming. You already know that you have both a body and a mind. And you might have suspected that when they are both connected, you can be really powerful. What you might not know is that this connection is the key to healing triathlon swim fear. So let’s get into that, but first, Captain Picard wants you to hear about some examples:
You’re powerful when you are riding your bike and you are focused on drafting someone. You are really present when you’re doing that. Your mind is feeling the balance and speed from your body on the bike. You’re in delicate but strategic control of your bike and, to be honest, you have to be. If you’re not in control, you’re both going into the ditch.
You’re powerful when you are driving in heavy traffic. You are really focused on where your wheel is going and what your gas pedal is doing. You are really “on,” and you are in deep concentration to create total control of your body. You have to be, because if you’re not, again, you’re going to go into the ditch.
The point is, you’re a powerful force when your mind and body are clicking along together.
But what about when you turn around and run smack into a wall in your house for no apparent reason? Or your knee knocks into the coffee table? Or that time you said “I love you too” to a coworker when ending a call? (a proud moment!) Those were times when your body wasn’t too connected to your mind, and, well, you can see the Three Stooges-like results.
We are going to relate this to swimming, we really are. Stay with me.
The 5 Circles
Let’s see if we can picture what it could look like to see a continuum of what happens when your mind gradually moves toward disconnection from your body.
This is a diagram called The 5 Circles. It’s a progression of your presence of mind moving away from the body in various steps, in this case representing the progression from calm to not so calm.
The 1st circle represents calm, when the mind and body are connected (like right now, hopefully). You have control here.
The 2nd Circle is when your presence of mind starts to leave your body a little, like when you’re in line at a haunted house. You feel nervousness and excitement. Mindfulness is decreasing. You don’t have total control.
The 3rd Circle represents straight up fear, when your feet and hands feel clammy and you have butterflies in your stomach. This might be you in the haunted house when you are creeping through the hallways. You don’t have a lot of control here, so you’re hesitant, iffy.
The 4th Circle is when you’re scared stiff: the moment in the haunted house that you see that dude from the Scream movie and you can’t move. Are you in control? No, because you’re frozen to the wall.
The 5th Circle is panic; this is the moment when you actually run into the Scream dude and run willy-nilly up the hill into the forest. How long does it take to go from 1st to 5th Circle? Just a second. Are you in control? Not at all.
The 5 Circles in Life
Do the 5 Circles only have to do with fear, or can they relate to anytime you are not really “in” your body? It can be anytime.
And hey, which Circle are you in right now? 1st? 2nd? To be completely honest, I’m in 2nd. While writing this, I’m realizing that my mind is running a background program on all of the things that remain undone around the house, yard, and desk. See, just noticing that allowed me to bring myself back fully into my body, to be here now, to put aside those distractions, and concentrate on telling this story even more effectively.
Finally, Mindfulness and Swimming
So here is where we get to apply this to swimming.
When you’re swimming, where are you? Are you home in your body in 1st Circle? Away?
Why is this important anyway?
Like we talked about in the car and bike examples above, if we are in 1st Circle, when mind and body are fully connected, then we’re in control of our bodies. We can carefully navigate drafting and heavy traffic because we’re “there.”
If we’re mentally checking out from our bodies while in open water, whether in terms of time (“What do I have to do later?”), expectations (“What is going to happen if I can’t continue swimming?”), or choices (“This makes me scared, I don’t want to do this”), then we are heading toward losing control of our bodies when we need it most.
So what do we do about this and how do we stay present in order to maintain control?
Here are some places to start:
- Stay in 1st Circle. Be and stay in the moment and be mindful of your actual body. Know that when you start to drift away from being in the moment and paying attention to your sensory feedback, be aware that this is you leaving the calm of 1st Circle. Staying calm in 1st Circle is the best way to progress.
If there are skills you want to learn, swimming in open water over your head, for example, but doing those skills makes you nervous (2nd Circle), then don’t do those skills right now. Do what you KNOW you can do calmly. That might be something like standing in a shallow lake. Then, when you get bored with that (which you WILL, eventually), you can try floating in shallow water, and when you get bored with that, you can try floating in deeper water, and so on.
The idea is to only practice the things in which you can stay in 1st Circle. You don’t need any more practice with things that make you nervous.
You might say, well if I don’t practice the things that make me nervous, then how do I progress?
We’d say, the MORE you practice what makes you nervous, the LESS you progress.
The MORE you practice the things that you can be CALM for, then the more you’ll become interested in what’s next and the MORE you’ll progress to the next thing and the next thing and the next.
But how long is that going to take? Won’t that take forever?
Let us answer that by asking another question. What if you took your time? Staying in 1st Circle as it relates to your progress will help you enjoy what you are doing, have more body control, and learn faster.
Lots of times we tend to want to rush through the progression of open water skills. You might say, “I feel great in shallow water, so why can’t I feel calm in deep open water?” Well, it’s because, maybe for good reason, you don’t believe you are safe in deep water, so it’s hard to feel calm there. This belief might be there partially because you might not have some important information about your body and the water. Which brings us to:
- Learn how the water works with your body and vice versa.
To feel how the water is interacting with your body, be connected to your senses – the physical feedback your body is getting from the environment. If you’re at the pool or in the lake, really feel the water. Really feel it. Do you feel pressure from your hands when you paddle? Are you fully exhaling? Are you cold? Hot? Knowing your body’s status and sensations helps you stay connected in your mind and body.
Feel your buoyancy and how the water works with your particular body. For example, do you float? Most people do, but some don’t. And you can still swim and be safe if you don’t. But if you don’t know how your buoyancy works for your specific body and how to roll onto your back to get all the rest you want, then deep water will feel like a scary place, whether pool or open water. For it not to be scary, you will want the ability to have rest and safety all the time. How do you do that? Aha! That brings us to…
- Learn how to be your own safety. Do you believe that you need the bottom for your safety? You might need it right now, and that’s ok. But ultimately, if your belief in your safety is based on the presence of something else, like the bottom, the wall, or kayakers, then you’ll forever be in search of those things to give you security.
What if your own body could be used as your source of safety? It can actually be done with back floats and bobbing, when you’re calm in 1st Circle. It’s all about knowing how to stay calm and therefore in control, and how to use your body to rest and get air.
When you know how to stay in control, how the water works, and how to rest whenever you want, you can heal your fear. You’ll be able to enjoy the swim for once, and have more fun doing it. Our new book, Conquer Your Fear of the Triathlon Swim, won’t be that useful for fighting the Borg, but it will help you on your journey to fearless triathlon swimming. Let us know your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.
Lifelong swimmer, NCAA Div 1 athlete, and multiple Ironman finisher Ali Meeks co-wrote the new book Conquer Your Fear of the Triathlon Swim to help people heal their fear of open water and enjoy triathlon more than ever before. As the founder of ReadySetSweat Endurance Coaching, she is passionate about building confident swimmers and triathletes. Her understanding of technical stroke aspects and in teaching those with fear render her a highly sought-after coach who understands the struggle. She is a USAT Coach, a Licensed Miracle Swimming Instructor, a Red Cross/CPR Trained Lifeguard, and an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. She lives in north Alabama with her husband, two no-good bird dogs, and four good horses.