There are probably several ways to break this down but I have found it helpful to divide swim training, particularly training for open-water swimming, into 3 parts, when I organize all the skills and points we should cover.
An accomplished swimmer looking at these three categories might think them too obvious to note. In reality, swimmers preparing to enjoy or race in open-water for the first time can feel overwhelmed by the challenge. It is helpful to break the new intimidating effort down into smaller tasks and in such a way that we check that we are preparing in a even manner. This will go a long way to help us build confidence.
Mind-Body-Environment : These are interrelated pieces- they should be developed together. When we develop only one area to the neglect of the others, we can experience negative and even dangerous consequences when jumping in the a new OW event. If you train one area out of proportion and falsely assume it will carry your through your weakness in the others- you invite disaster. For instance, a powerful pool competitor can get in a lot of trouble when they don’t have the mind and environment experience for dealing with wild water. However, you don’t have to swim in OW long before a disproportionate strength in one area will compel you to develop the weaker ones.
[I noticed that a few Olympic 10k swimmers did not start or dropped out due to the cold water (20 C) of the Serpentine. I wonder- in the weeks leading up to this ultimate race did they and their coaches pay no heed to training for the actual conditions they were to race in?]
Since this is just a conceptual picture I suggest to you that the more evenly we train these three areas together, the more successful and the more enjoyable our open-water swimming experiences will be.
This is where we are building specific skills- both muscular strength and muscular control- so that our body can actually move forward the whole intended distance with excellence in technique and in enjoyment of the effort- this necessarily excludes drowning, sinking, or getting totally exhausted.
Some advice for new OW swimmers: swim your intended distance as much as possible so that distance itself is no longer an intimidating factor for you. When I prepare for a race earlier in the season, in the weeks leading up to it I swim at least once a week a distance longer than the event (or equivalent in time and intensity) so that race day there is no sense of concern for the distance itself. I know then that the muscles and body systems can handle the basic task- I can then focus on how I want to accomplish that distance, rather than if I can accomplish it.
If it is a first-time event I suggest that you dedicate that first race or distance to just that- a research event, without pressure upon yourself to acheive a particular time. Simply explore the race course, your body and your mind. Take notes. Be mindfully aware of lots of interesting details. From swimming it with a relaxed point of view you will gain major insights into how to train and how to actually ‘race it’ the next time you do, with much lower risk of a physical or mental injury that may result inexperience and over-exertion in a new distance or event.
Training the body is also about giving the metabolic system time to adapt to the effort, to the event, and to the environment. Getting the body prepared for the temperature is a major part of our training.
And, as I noted with the Olympic 10k drop-outs above- if you intend to race in a cooler or warmer water than you are comfortably used to- you had better train in it enough so that you are used to it for the length, duration and intensity level of the event you are training for. Wishful thinking will not keep you from hypo or hyper thermia. And if you may be swimming near those extremes you had better take some carefully monitored practice times in those extreme conditions to get yourself fully familiar with the earliest warning signs- you must be ready to take your safety into your own hands. The good news is that in 2 or 3 weeks of frequent exposure to challenging water temperatures can provoke your body to adapt and extend your temperature comfort range to an amazing degree.
Training the mind is not just an attitude- and certainly more sophisticated that just being ‘tough’. It’s about being smart and being adaptive, and even about having fun in wild water.
Training the mind is about acquiring the ability to focus attention so that we can consciously control and protect good technique. Beyond this, it is the trained ability to make good decision under pressure. Beyond this, it is the trained ability to enjoy the whole experience, even with the uncertainties and disappointments are presented to us in an open-water environment.
Swim in your chosen waterway as much as possible, and do it in measured exposures to the various challenges in it. You don’t need to take on all intimidating factors at once! Cold, deep, dark, distant, big waves, currents, creatures, crowds, boats, etc, all at once? No way! Pick just one or two at a time and gradually get familiar or desensitized to the stress they provoke. Break the gang of fear apart and take them out one-by-one.
I’ve written more on this in my series on Overcoming Fear In Open-Water. I feel there is some good training advice in there even if you don’t feel you have fears to overcome. Once fear is conquered you start adding to the account in terms of confidence with the same practices.
We focus the mind in practice so that it is natural to do it on the day of a performance test. And when stress hits, whether in a race or in a survival situation, that focus can mean the difference between success or defear, life or death.
To not just stay safe we need to know our open-water swimming environment so that we can enjoy the experience and accomplish our goals.
This means mental familiarity- knowing what to do there and how to swim most effectively in those conditions.
Metabolic familiarity- our body being exposed enough to those conditions that the body can easily heat or cool itself appropriately and we can generate the power needed to accomplish the distance.
Emotional familiarity- we do not want to underestimate the role that our emotional reactions have, not only on survival, but on achieving our best performance, or our most satisfying one.
Take ownership of your favorite water way. Master the environment – collect factual, sensory and experiential knowledge of that waterway. Know the seasons, the weather patterns, the water chemistry (and taste!), the wildlife, and everything you can know about it. It will enhance the enjoyment, help you make safer decisions, and help alleviate unreasonable fears.
I am an avid open-water swimmer. I know my body, and I know my mind. I know my swimming range under different health, water conditions and weather. And if you come to my water here in the Antalya coast, I may know these waterways as well as any experienced swimmer in my area.
However, I am not a master of every water way, or even of very many. I know that I do not know my body or my mind in the English Channel, or even in your local lake. Every new wild water location requires a new process of familiarity and a new negotiation with nature. It is always wise to pay respect to the locals.
There’s a lot of water out there, and a lot of places we can become a master of and share our knowledge and confidence of it with others. Let’s get to it!