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THE MENTAL TOLL #openwaterswimming

Anyone who has participated in endurance sports – be it a trail running marathon or a triathlon – knows that most of the game (once you’re properly conditioned) is mental. It’s all a mental game.

But the world of open water swimming has stretched my mental game to a whole new level I didn’t even know existed. At the beginning of July I did my first bonadfide open water swim. 4.5 miles, and 3 and a half hours swimming the length of Honeoye Lake – one of upstate NY’s beautiful Finger Lakes – end to end. It took me about a week to feel good-to-go again physically. Heck, I threw in a trail half-marathon as a recovery run. Meanwhile, it seriously took about 3 weeks for my brain to recover.

All the elite open water swimmers I know employ sports psychologists. I didn’t really know why until now. Now I get it, and now I have an even deeper respect for what those folks do (no, I’m most certainly not “elite”).

Open water swimming is a mental game. Swimming towards an unknown destination on the horizon is mentally challenging in a multitude of ways. I knew beforehand that it would be. But I had no idea what the mental toll would be from the whole “life/death thing.”

When one is on a 6 hour trail run you can take a break. You can sit down or walk, etc. Or on a 100+ mile mountain bike ride you can dismount, stretch out the legs, regroup. Open water swimming? You can’t. You can tread water and refuel, but that’s it. And it’s not as refreshing as it sounds. But the major challenge is the big difference between, “keep pushing yourself, just finish” on the trail –vs- “keep pushing yourself so that you don’t drown and die” in open water swimming. That’s a pretty big difference. And I wasn’t prepared for the sheer amount of mental energy that it uses up. That it sucks out of you. It was a dark world for which I was unprepared. I knew it would be part of the equation, but I underestimated the impact it would have on my mental stamina.

I had originally scheduled an 8 mile open water swim (Conesus) for August and a 15 mile open water swim (Canandaigua) for September, but I realized towards the end of July that my brain was just not ready for another open water swim that soon. My body is even stronger, but my mind needed time to regroup. It’s hard for an athlete to admit that ,but… you do learn to trust your gut after awhile. I’m trusting my gut.

Conesus Lake (8 miles of open water) is on my calendar for Saturday, September 8th, and I have a better handle on what I’m in for now. August? Don’t worry, I’ve got something long, grueling, and fun cooked up for August.

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