While discussing my upcoming 2013 race (Ironman Lake Placid – gulp) with my friend last week, we were going over the various distances (as people often inquire) of each leg:
swim 2.4 miles
bike 112 miles
run 26.2 miles
The numbers blew his mind, but his biggest concern was “What do you think about during the swim??” My immediate response: “Nothing … or at least that’s my goal.” And it’s absolutely true. While I have never done a 2.4 mile swim, my longest has been 1.2 miles for a half-Ironman, and for any open water swim I know myself and where my mind has the potential to go. If I let my mind wander I will a) start swimming off course, b) start psyching myself out, and, worst of all, c) panic.
An open water swim can be a pretty frightening and intense experience. You look through your goggles and on occasion you can see what is beneath you, however it’s not rare to hardly be able to see your hand in front of you. Adding to that people swimming by you, pawing at your feet or, worse, kicking you in the face (knock on wood I’ve never suffered any injury from this). I will never forget my very first open water swim: Seaside Sprint, Bridgeport, CT 2010. As soon as I looked in the water and saw nothing but darkness, I panicked. I started feeling short of breath, my wetsuit immediately felt like it had shrunk 2 sizes. I tried floating on my back, keeping my head above water while doing breast-stroke, and distancing myself as much as possible from the other swimmers.
Long story short, I finally made it to the half-way point and got myself together. The one thing that took me through that final 1/2 mile was monitoring my breath. That and starting to hear a cheering crowd.
So, back to the original question “What do you think about during the swim?”
The swim portion of a triathlon can be a very lonely experience. You don’t have any crowds cheering for you and you can’t even make conversation with your fellow racers – one of the delights during the bike and run of a triathlon.
When I did NYC Triathlon in 2010, my first olympic-distance race, I was racing for American Cancer Society in memory of my uncle who had passed away from cancer. The first moment I started hating the swim, I looked up at the sky while taking a breath in, and thought of him. I thought of the hardships he went through and how through all of that, he still had so much love for his family and so much humor. If he could get through that, I could certainly get through a swim in the Hudson River. This brought me back to the present moment and, most importantly, my breath. Breathing is obviously an important part of swimming and each time I jump in the water, the first few minutes are always a little scary. But once I settle into the rhythm of my breath, the fear and trepidation of what’s to come and all the “what if’s” of race day start to melt away. Sometimes I will count my breathing, or even hum along to the rhythm I am creating. Don’t get me wrong, following your breath while swimming in open water is HARD work – in the same way that sitting still and meditating for an hour is hard – but if it prevents me from the panic and helps propel me forward into race day, I’m all for it!
Use your breath as a tool
How can you apply this to you? Well, think of any difficult or trying situation you have experienced or may experience in the future. This encompasses any situation where we find ourselves overwhelmed by stress or anxiety: starting a new job, having a difficult conversation with a loved one, or even spending time with certain relatives we may find hard to deal with around the holidays! Next time you find yourself in a tough spot, try taking a few deep breaths, and really LISTEN to your breath. Not to get all yogic on you but try to notice the quality of your breath – is it hard to breathe in deep? Does it feel a little restrained? Stay with it and see it you notice any difference in the way that you are able to approach the given situation. Oh, and let me know how you do.