I didn’t really realise that I was scared of outdoor swimming until a few weeks into training for the Bantham Swoosh, a 6k Swimming event in Devon. My mum is terrified of open water swimming but as far as I was concerned I had no such qualms. I’d happily swim in the sea as a kid. However, it turns out that paddling around and doing breast stroke is quite a different kettle of fish to trying to swim front crawl for any sustained period of time. I don’t recall ever choosing to do front crawl and when I did start trying it when I started my training, I was really shocked by how hard I found it. My breathing was a disaster, I felt like I was constantly swallowing water and I couldn’t even go one length in a 20 metre pool before having to stop and catch my breathe. Luckily my friend Alice, who is experienced with open water swimming, was able to guide me through the process and slowly but surely I started feeling a bit more confident in my local pool.
We did our first outdoor swim about at Tooting Bec Lido, an excellent venue with an unheated 100(ish) metre outdoor pool, and it was a bit of a wake up call for me as to how much I needed to work on before the Swoosh. I couldn’t really do an entire length, and I was stuck in the mindset of just trying to get myself through to the end of the pool so I could stop and have a break – obviously something that I wouldn't be able to do in a river. I was also doing a lot of panicking about my breathing, the cold water had come as quite a shock and I was convinced that I was going to drown. Also after Alice observed me, we realised that my legs were doing completely the wrong movement – as she put it, I was ‘trying to run underwater’.
But within just three weeks I saw a massive change in my swimming progress, and it was pretty much all down to my mindset, apart from a few small tweaks to kicking technique. I stopped thinking of the end of a length as an opportunity for a break, and instead switched to occasionally doing breast stroke if I needed to catch my breath. Really that’s the equivalent of walking for a bit if you’re tired of running. After a few swims doing that I was able to cut down the breast stroke time, and within a few weeks managed 2km of front crawl in my local pool, nonstop.
Then we returned to the Lido, and I was a little nervous as I wasn’t sure whether the cold water would throw me off again and undo all my hard work. The first five lengths were horrible. Again, I felt like I was drowning and all that kept going through my head was ‘there is no way you’ll be able to do the full 6k swim’. But at the fifth length I made myself stop, close my eyes and do some mindfulness exercises. I did these three:
DEEP BREATHS IN THROUGH YOUR NOSE AND OUT THROUGH YOUR MOUTH. THREE OR FOUR TIMES
THINK OF THREE SOUNDS THAT YOU CAN HERE, THREE SENSATIONS YOU CAN FEEL AND THREE THINGS YOU CAN SEE.
- COUNT TO TEN SLOWLY A FEW TIMES TRYING NOT TO THINK ABOUT ANYTHING EXCEPT THE NUMBERS. IF YOU DO NOTICE YOURSELF THINKING ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE, GENTLY BRING YOURSELF BACK TO COUNTING.
Feeling much calmer, I set off again and didn’t stop until I’d done a total of 2.5km. It was so much easier and I absolutely loved it. I only stopped because the pool was freezing and my fingers would no longer stick together, meaning I wasn’t really able to scoop the water effectively – Alice got a pretty hilarious video of me finishing the swim and trying to get my fingers to move, to no avail (don’t worry, a warm shower has returned their function!). I decided to invest in some swimming gloves after that (even if it does make me look a bit wimpy compared to the skins swimmers in the same pool!).
Mindfulness can help when you’re feeling anxious about a sport; just taking two minutes to do a few exercises can make all the difference. My favourite quote from Alice over the training period was ‘you’re in charge of when you breathe’. If anyone reading this struggles with breathing and front crawl, this is gold. I was often getting myself into a tizz because I’d accidentally inhale water, cough, but not let myself come up for air because it ‘wasn’t the right time in the stroke’, but if you need to breathe, just let yourself breathe.