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Monday, March 21, 2011
Updated: March 23, 8:31 AM ET
Attacking the open water swim


"What Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught about the underlying, fundamental uncertainty -- which scientific tests now prove is more frightening to us than physical pain -- is that the very basis of the fear itself is doubting ourselves, not trusting ourselves." -- Pema Chodron

Last week I posted the question, "What are your open water swimming fears?" I received many responses. Fears ranged from "fish monsters biting my feet" to the waves, "how do I get to the buoy in a straight line?" and just the plain "unknown" of no lane lines, floor or walls.

Some responses were rational fears such as having a bathroom emergency in the middle of the race, while others were frustrations like goggles coming loose or filling with water.

Success at open water swimming does not begin in a pool or a lake; it begins in your head. There are a limitless number of quotes from any number of people that say essentially the same thing -- if you think you can or if you think you can't, you are right.

Some of the most common phrases I hear, particularly from casual triathletes, are "I'm a really bad swimmer," "I hate the swim," "I am such a slow swimmer" ... and "I hate the swim." For many first-time triathletes, an open water swim can be intimidating.

If you have fears or frustrations about swimming in an open water triathlon, don't panic, practice! If you're diligent at it, you should expect to be more comfortable in open water and have a level of confidence from knowing what to expect while you're out there.

Whether you have a fear or frustration, both can cause anxiety. If we allow ourselves the opportunities, we usually can learn whatever we set our minds to -- including swimming and, more specifically, swimming in an open water triathlon. Deciding to stop talking yourself out of it and rationalizing your fears or frustrations will make a dramatic improvement in your swimming. Tell yourself you are a good swimmer who just needs to develop the skills to overcome your fears.

First and foremost is your decision about your goal and WHY you want it for yourself -- not unlike deciding to return to grad school, change your career or take on multisport, you must make a decision that is held with conviction before moving forward. Then you can:

• Conquer your fears
• Swim, bike and run the distance
• Finish with a smile on your face

Below are some of the fears and frustrations triathletes have expressed to me along with ways to practice to overcome them:

Cold water. Wear a wetsuit and neoprene cap. Practice swimming in cold water. Warm up at least 10 minutes to get used to the cold.

Not being able to breath. Pace yourself -- go slow, then go a little slower. Here are some more breathing tips.

Bathroom emergency. Discuss concerns with an RD about prerace meals and hydration. Wake up early so your system can have time to keep moving.

For more fears, and the strategies to combat them, visit Wendy's expert advice column.

Wendy Mader is the 2008 top female amateur at the World Ironman Championships and GOTRIbal expert coach.