Special feature - Overcoming anxiety in swimming

Overcoming anxiety in swimming

Chloë McCardel, open water swimmer

Swimming in the open water is so different to swimming in a pool and that is what attracts so many of us to the sport. We love the wildness of swimming in the open water free from black lines, chlorine, pace clocks, tumble turns etc… and we gain the ability to re-connect with nature by tasting the salt water, swimming in rough unpredictable conditions and even swimming with wild creatures. Yes, I did say wild creatures. Some of our watery friends have teeth or venom but most of them thankfully do not and those that do are not really interested in you even if they are ever present in your mind!

Anxiety is common in open water swimming – even at elite levels. If you have entered the Rottnest Swim (relay or solo) you likely are comfortable and confident participating in large open water swim events where people swim on top of each other and there are stray limbs going in all directions – which is a common cause of swim anxiety. But you may still be anxious about other aspects of the swim, maybe you are concerned about swimming into jellyfish or encountering a shark?

Let’s start with the jellyfish. There are several thousand of jellyfish species. They are not trying to attack you or hurt you, most have little control over their movements. The best way to reduce the likelihood of swimming in to them is to get your kayaker and/or boat team to keep a look out for them and divert your swim course if they are spotted ahead of you. They will not chase you! If you do get stung follow first aid procedures. The sting may be painful but it will go away.

The hysteria around sharks is largely unwarranted with the minor risk of an attack. As far as I am aware there have been no shark encounters (injuries) during an open water swim event in the world ever. In fact, you are unlikely to even see a shark during the swim and even if you do the shark is probably just happily doing its own thing, after all, the ocean is the native habitat for sharks it’s where they live!

It is best to keep things in perspective, if you are worried about an encounter with wildlife think about what the realistic chances are of that happening, instruct your crew to keep an eye out at all times (risk minimisation) and remember if you really are nervous at any time you can always get out of the water – although this will end your swim if you are a solo – it’s good to know you have the choice to continue or not (knowing that you are in control helps to reduce anxiety). Remember, you entered this swim to have fun and enjoy the experience so if it’s no longer fun due to severe anxiety or you don’t feel safe, it is OK to get out.

If you want to swim through anxiety try and regain control of your thoughts, as your thoughts affect your anxiety level. Think about your freestyle stroke, imagine it being long and smooth as your arms enter the water. Focus also on your breathing - you need to exhale all the air when your head is the water so you are ready for fresh oxygen when you turn your head to breathe. Holding your breath will only increase the carbon dioxide in your body making you more anxious and dizzy. If the previous techniques aren’t working you can always turn and float on your back for a few moments. When you are ready to flip onto your front again, recompose yourself and then try to maintain those easy breaths and a long stroke when you continue swimming.

The ability to complete marathon swims is not just about going the physical distance and overcoming the conditions that Mother Nature throws at you. It is also about overcoming the mental challenges along the way. Every time you are challenged you grow stronger and you are already stronger than you realise – so go out there and have fun!!

About the author:

Chloë McCardel has swum the English Channel solo 13 times and also coached 57 relay and solo swimmers to cross the English Channel too. She swam in the Bahamas (known for the variety of species and numbers of shark) for 41 hours in October 2014 including two nights to set the world record for the longest unassisted ocean swim (ratified by the Marathon Swimmers Federation).  If you are interested in swimming the English Channel you can contact her at chloe@chloemccardel.com

Feb 26 2016 - 2:15pm