Open water can be terrifying. Even well trained professional open water swimmers can feel a sense of dread when they enter the water. Why wouldn't they? Many things can go wrong in the open water portion of a race. Danger lurks not only beneath the dark, cold water, but also within the swimmer.
Let's explore the dangers of open water swimming and the potential for disaster. Learn what can happen and how you can recover from or avoid disasters altogether.
First, this may irritate you if you are new to the sport. If you are a pool swimmer only, you are not ready for open water swimming. In the open water swimming leg of a triathlon, you don't have lights, warmth, creature-free water, or side of the pool for quick recovery. You cannot move from the pool to the open water without training, preparation and a plan. Even skilled triathletes experience trouble in open water.
A complete lack of training—or ineffective training—can lead to disaster. Between 2003 and 2011, 45 people died during triathlons. A reported 13 triathletes died in 2012 alone. Don't become a statistic.
1. Cardiac Arrest
Of the 45 people who died between 2003 and 2011, 31 of them suffered heart attacks in the water. Most were middle-aged men between the ages of 40 and 60. To be completely transparent about the rise in deaths, we need to acknowledge that the number of people participating in triathlons has tripled and even quadrupled. Incidents aren't skyrocketing, but participation is.
A few ideas about why people suffer heart attacks during the swim:
- Pressure on the chest from wet suits
- Cold water restricts blood flow then causes a surge when the swimmer gets moving
- Minor, undiagnosed heart irregularities
- Lack of acclimation
- Pulmonary edema
- Scars from previous heart attack
What to do: It is critically important to speak to your physician about whether you are fit for the task. Discuss any current or past heart abnormalities and discomfort. Provide your physician with a family history, especially about heart attacks and disease. If your doctor clears you to race, recognize the symptoms of a heart attack:
- Shortness of breath
- Surge in heart rate
- Chest pains
If you experience any of these symptoms, stop immediately. Get out of the water or signal for help.
2. Swimming Too Far
Swimming too far is common among triathletes. From the increased turbulence in the water, poor visibility and obstacles in the water, it is easy to overshoot your distance.
What to do: Fortunately, this is not so much a disaster as an inconvenience. Swimming too far, however, can lead to exhaustion and dehydration if you are not prepared. If you end up hundreds of meters off target, you may need to adjust your training and your goggle selection. When you are training, you must increase sight awareness out of the water. Use landmarks every time you look out to determine where you are swimming and about how fast you are traveling. When sighting landmarks out of the water, look for tall objects and unusual features.
Do not follow boats! If you are using a boat as a visual marker, it is probably moving and taking you right along with it.
3. Losing Your Goggles
This is a tough one. Losing your goggles can really kill your spirit when you are in the water. As if losing visibility isn't bad enough, you can end up swimming too far.
What to do: There is a two-part solution to this—prevention and preparedness. To prevent losing your goggles during the open water swim, you can do a few things:
- Buy better goggles.
- Do not leave your goggles out in the sun so the strap does not become weak.
- Inspect your goggles the night before and the morning of your race.
- When you are not using your goggles, or right after you get done using them, store them in a case or cloth.
What about preparedness? You can prepare by wrapping a second pair of goggles around your neck and by practicing goggle-less drills. When you are training, practice without your goggles so you can learn to adjust your technique if you lose your goggles in the water.
4. Swelling Waves
Forget about unknown creatures; swelling waves can freak a swimmer out more than a sea animal. Waves cause turbulence, they can lead to exhaustion and anxiety, and they can disorient a swimmer.
What to do: Do not try to cut through the waves. It won't work. What happens when you try to run up the down escalator? Nothing. You work harder and get nowhere. Go below to bypass the crash. Try to get as low as possible so the waves pass over you. If it helps, guide yourself by feeling for the bottom.
I can't make a disaster list without talking about cramps. My body cringes just thinking about them. Lower-leg cramps are the most common among triathletes, who spend a great deal of time building power and strength in their legs to run, ride and swim.
What to do: You can take steps to prevent leg cramps in the first place. You need to make sure you are properly hydrated, that your diet has adequate amounts of potassium and salt, and that you are training properly and effectively.
Focus on leg flexibility and strength while training. This is best achieved with dry land exercises and in-water drills. Work with a coach or skilled triathlete to perfect your form in the water.
If your leg cramps up when you are in the water, stop right away. To ease the cramp, stop swimming and tread water while you rotate the ankle until the cramp eases. If you have a cramp in your calf, stretch your toes away from the cramp so you feel the stretch in your calf. Hold it until the cramp subsides. If you are experiencing a complete body spasm or muscle convulsions, get out of the water or signal for help. Take deep breaths to relieve anxiety and to prevent yourself from panicking.
Many open water disasters are preventable. If you only remember one thing from this article when you are in the water, make it this: Don't panic.
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