Courtesy of Julia Galan
Estonia’s Henri Kaarma is no stranger to the challenges of open water swimming. The 2014 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year transitioned to open water swimming over seven years ago after a successful career in the pool. And he didn’t choose the easiest path, either. Henri decided to take the ultimate open water challenge and embrace the extreme sport of ice swimming. From slowly getting used to swimming in temperatures colder than 5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit)…
Henri rapidly excelled at the sport, becoming one of the fastest and most talented ice swimmers in history. In addition to setting several world records in various distances for the sport of ice swimming, Henri took part in one of the most dangerous open water swims ever to be undertaken – the Bering Strait Swim relay.
We thought it would be exciting to hear some words of wisdom about open water swimming from Henri himself. Here are some of his valuable tips for anyone venturing into the field, whether for triathlons, open water races, or just for fun!
1) Be flexible and prepare for every possible scenario.
Any open water swim, whether it is considered ice swimming or not, is going to be different and unexpected. In the open water, there are many different factors that are going to affect your race, so prepare for the unexpected. Knowing that things may not always go exactly as planned, and being prepared to overcome any obstacles is the key to finishing your race with good results.
For example, familiarize yourself with the currents and tides of the course you will be swimming. Practice feeding in the water if you have to do it in your race, as you will quickly find out that it is hard to swallow solids and even liquids if the body is under stress, cold, and horizontal. In ice swimming, even the recovery period needs to be prepared for, as this is surprisingly one of the most difficult things about ice swimming! Bottom line: prepare for every single aspect of your race, run through every possible scenario, and you will go into the swim with greater confidence and reduced anxiety.
2) Nutrition and hydration is important before, during and after your swim.
Discover what works best for you. Personally, I don’t eat large meals for at least 4 hours before the swim. I hate that ‘bloated’ feeling I get when there is not enough time to digest my meal before swimming. Others may disagree, however Ironman triathletes, for example, may have different regimens as they have to fuel themselves for the entire day, starting with the swim. Nutrition is very important and you need to find out what is best for you given the race that you will be participating in. Whatever your nutrition plan may be, however, be sure to keep yourself well hydrated, including during training. We don’t feel as dehydrated in the water as we do on land, and that can be very deceiving. If you can’t hydrate during your race, be sure to do so before and after.
3) Be relaxed and develop a pre-race routine before your event.
The most important thing to do before your swim is to be as relaxed as possible. This will ensure that you will not have to deal with a panic attack or increased anxiety when you hit the water. Try to swim the course before the event if possible. Get there early on race day. Be sure that your wetsuit is comfortable, and adjust the sleeves and legs so that there’s plenty of room for arm and body movements. Develop a pre-race routine to help remain calm and confident!
4) Be prepared for cold water conditions, if applicable
Many open water swims, whether as part of a triathlon or stand-alone, take place in colder water conditions. You need to be as prepared as possible for the shock that you will experience upon hitting cold water. The first key is to practice in cold water. There’s no other way to ‘trick’ your body into handling the cold. Try winter swimming. This is a huge confidence booster if you know you have swum in 0 degrees Celsius without a wetsuit and survived to tell the tale! Before the start, accept the fact that you’ll feel cold from the first stroke. If you’ve done your training, this feeling will only last for a few minutes and you can keep moving from there.
5) If you’re uncomfortable in deep, dark water conditions, concentrate on something above the water
Unless you’re swimming in the tropics, you most likely won’t be able to see the bottom of the water you’re swimming in. It may be dark, deep and cold. To reduce anxiety, concentrate on something above the water, like the shoreline or a buoy. Also understand that the sun and the water can create shadows that play tricks on the mind. With better knowledge of your surroundings comes less anxiety and increased confidence.
6) Embrace the crowded conditions!
Many swimmers tend to get anxious at the crowded conditions they face during triathlons or open water races. This is normal. Just remember that you are all fish in the same school. Nobody is there to hit you on purpose, but realize that occasional bumps are inevitable. Try not to touch the toes of the swimmer in front of you repeatedly, however, as no one likes that! And having people around you is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, you can go faster by drafting off of a fellow swimmer! But whatever you do, don’t trust other swimmers’ sighting – always check whether you are on course or you could be led astray.
Thanks for the great tips, Henri! Check out our interview with the “man of ice” along the shores of the Baltic Sea.
About Julia Galan
Julia Galan is a lifelong competitive swimmer and a USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. Julia’s passion for the sport, for coaching and for writing led to the creation of Swimspire, a coaching and swimming inspiration source geared towards athletes of all levels and goals.