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Triathlon Tips

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

Author Peter Benchley’s marginally successful novel “Jaws” was released as a movie 42 years ago today. The film shattered box office records, rewrote the rules on movie release methods and touched off a succession of progressively awful sequels and occasionally credible documentaries that continue to fuel fascination- and mostly unreasonable fear of sharks- to this day.

Since “Jaws” every shark attack makes headlines. Nearly everyone remembers seeing the film with its shocking surprise visuals and its oddly floppy fake rubber robot shark. But most terrifyingly, everyone remembers the scenes in the water when you can see… nothing.

Director Steven Spielberg did an incredible job of building tension and terror in the unknown with soundtrack, lighting, foreshadowing and a looming sense of unseen menace. And of course, those two low notes of music that now universally signal impending doom: “duh…DUH.”

Speilberg’s skill was so effective it has created several generations of people with an irrational fear of the water, absurd notions about sharks as wanton maneaters and a general and wholly unwarranted misconception about the sea.

My girlfriend was afraid of the water. Not just what was in it, but even putting her face in it. Eight weeks later she swam unprotected at 70-feet depth off Roatan Island in Honduras in a school of 10-foot sharks in a feeding frenzy while I photographed her. Her only anxiety stemmed from my penchant to swim too far away from her to try to photograph, and pet, the swirling mass of “man eaters” as they swam around us.

My girlfriend Jan at 80-feet depth in a school of nice-sized reef sharks.

The truth is, sharks aren’t really that dangerous. In fact, I’ve spent years and thousands of dollars in travel and equipment just to find them for the chance to swim with them. And when I have been successful, which takes time, money and work. I have always been rewarded. They are beautiful and majestic. Often they are even gentle and playful.

I have swum in schools of sharks, petted sharks, fed sharks, and photographed sharks while in the water with them. No cages. Not one has ever tried to bite me. One shark in Curaçao demonstrated aggressive behavior toward me, she may have been playing with me, but she was big and she and I did not speak the same language so I simply swam away from her. She left.

Sharks are not wanton killing machines as Peter Benchley’s fictional novel suggests. Benchley’s novel is based loosely on a real life incident that took place between July 1 and July 12 in 1916 along the New Jersey coastline and, oddly, far up a small, brackish water rivulet named Matawan Creek. Sharks, or a single shark, attacked five people. Four of the victims died, more from poor first aid in 1916 than the severity of their wounds. One survived their attack.

The 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks happened as American news media was growing and people were on summer holiday. It made for sensational (and grossly embellished) headlines. It sold newspapers, pamphlets and books. And it created an absurd level of hysteria and fear so vast it continues today. Talk to any modern triathlon competitor about their biggest fear, and they will tell you it is swimming in the open ocean.

While the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks were terrifying, they were a bizarre anomaly likely attributable to a unique happenstance in shark behavior. A large shark was likely confused by the moon phase that influenced the tide and accidentally swam upriver as the water salinity (salt levels in sea water) increased in the usually fresh water. As the shark became increasingly distressed, it became increasingly aggressive and panicked. And it bit people. The same behavior is common from a squirrel, a house cat or a panicked dog. But a medium size shark can inflict a larger bite than a dog.

Since Benchley’s novel and Spielberg’s movie was released conservationists have had to wage war on the terror-driven misconceptions that have caused unreasonable fear and wanton killing of sharks. To this day the unwarranted fear continues, not only of sharks, but of the ocean in general.

Could a shark bite you? It could. But the chances are more than remote. They’re astronomical, even when you are in the water with sharks. Think about this, if you were on a street with three strange dogs would you be panicked about them attacking you? Common sense dictates you observe their behavior and go about your business. The exact same is true of sharks. Even the rarest of sharks, the holy grail of shark spotting, the great white shark, is relatively placid when not feeding. If you are ever lucky enough to actually find one it will likely swim away in disinterest.

Our fear of sharks and the ocean is like nearly all fears. It is founded in lore and ignorance. The remedy is learning and understanding while developing a strong respect for this vast remaining wilderness and the marvelous creatures that live in it.

 

Author Tom Demerly will pet just about anything, even sharks, but never catches any fish. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

It’s common for people who finish an Ironman™ brand race to get a tattoo with the recognizable “M-Dot” Ironman™ logo.

Tattoos are an interesting cultural hot point. The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield quipped, “Marriage? Yes! But get a tattoo? No way, they are way too permanent.”

Not many people who get a tattoo will look you in face after they got it and say, “I regret getting this tattoo. It was a mistake.”

I was curious about people who get tattoos, and more specifically, people who have Ironman™ brand tattoos. So I did some reading, asked some questions and did more than a bit of thinking.

Pay close attention to how I’ve typed the term “Ironman™ brand”, not “ironman triathlon” or “long distance triathlon”. There is a legal distinction between these terms. The term “Ironman™” is a registered trademark, along with another 45 terms related to “Ironman™” that include the phrase “Anything is Possible™” and, somewhat curiously, the single word “Grace™”. The M-Dot™ logo is also trademarked by Ironman™.

In the strictest interpretation of the law a person with an Ironman™ brand M-Dot™ tattoo has committed trademark violation if they did not get permission from the Ironman™ organization and presumably pay a licensing fee. It is stipulated right here on the Ironman™ webpage:

“If you are a Sponsor or Licensee of WTC that is contractually entitled to use an IRONMAN, IRONMAN 70.3, IRON GIRL or IRONKIDS trademark, service mark or logo (the “Marks”), please follow the specific usage guidelines provided as a part of your sponsorship or license agreement.  If you have questions regarding your use as is outlined in your specific agreement, please contact your WTC Account Manager.”

And also:

“If you are not a Sponsor or Licensee of WTC that is contractually entitled to use the Marks, please be advised that WTC normally does not grant third party use of its Marks.  After you have carefully reviewed this entire document and feel that extraordinary special circumstances may apply to your request, please contact the Trademark Permissions Center at trademarks@ironman.com.  Permissions are granted solely at the discretion of WTC as owner of the Marks.”

But those are technicalities, and people get Harley-Davidson and Metallica tattoos all the time, so those facts seem removed from the central question of why people get Ironman™ brand tattoos. But these ideas did cloud my understanding of the behavior.

After thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that the real question is not, “Why do people get Ironman tattoos?” but more accurately, “Why do I care what other people do?”

I had an epiphany. While I like to think of myself as open minded, I was actually being shortsighted in even trying to render judgment about other people getting tattoos. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I wasn’t sincerely trying to understand the reasons people get Ironman™ tattoos; I was trying to form an opinion about why- before truly understanding why. And why was I trying to form an opinion about getting an Ironman™ tattoo in the first place?

To better understand the motives behind Ironman™ brand tattoos I visited the Facebook group “IronMan Tats” and posted the question, “Why did you get an Ironman™ tattoo?”

The answers I got had a little to do with showing other people that someone accomplished a goal. But more people in the Facebook group told me their tattoos serve as a reminder of what they accomplished to themselves. This reminder does not just memorialize their Ironman™ race, but more significantly the hard work and change that was required to even get to the start line. The tattoo is a conspicuous reminder that lives on their skin and says, “Anything is Possible™”. The tattoo reminds them that they can accomplish anything if they put in enough work.

The bigger question was, why was I so judgmental about peoples’ motives for getting an Ironman™ tattoo? I chalk my initial questioning up to a learned set of cognitive biases that, according to the famous Cognitive Bias chart says that; “We favor simple looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options.”

One thing I’ve learned about triathletes themselves is that there are as many motives for participating as there are athletes, each one slightly nuanced by personal values and experiences. To make matters even more complex I have seen the motives for participation in triathlons actually evolve over time, especially for people who have been in the sport for decades.

I wanted to understand something I did not, and tried to find the answer with already established internal concepts of my own. That didn’t work. I didn’t set out to sincerely learn external motives.

This changed my concept of M-Dot™ tattoos and their owners, but more importantly it illustrated a dangerous slippery slope that I think we are sometimes subject to: judging through our own lens before learning to view an experience through someone else’s. Once I set out to sincerely learn why people get these tattoos then I could actually learn something new rather than comparing something I already believed to something I was seeing and trying to make the two fit together.

This is likely not a very sensational thesis if you’ve read the preceding 900 words, but it is a solid, if not thrilling one. To me it is worth remembering when I experience something I have difficulty understanding: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

 

Tom Demerly has done six Ironmans including Hawaii, but has no tattoos mostly because, while he likes triathlons, he doesn’t like needles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly.

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Bike fitting is big business. Having some version of “professional” bike fitting is the new standard for any bike sold above $1000.

How do you tell if your bike fitter knows what they’re doing? Are they a credible, trained, experienced fitter or just repeating buzzwords in a kind of bike fit “theater” learned in a weeklong clinic under the guise of years of experience fitting athletes during the evolution of bike fitting?

Here are ten checkpoints to assess the credibility of your bike fitter:

  1. Do They Ride? The Way You Do?

If a bike fitter knows what it’s like to be a beginner triathlete filled with anxiety and not even know what questions to ask they can help the newest beginner with solid recommendations. A good fitter knows the “beginner’s mind”.

At the opposite end of the experience scale, if your fitter knows what it’s like to sit on an uncomfortable saddle for six hours at Ironman- and can fix it– it’s easier for them to understand what you’re experiencing. If they have done it themselves, you’ve found a fitter you can relate to.

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“After their bike fits Dave and Enrique couldn’t help but wonder if there had been some confusion between their two appointments…”

When a bike fitter combines the “beginner’s mind” with elite level competitive experience balanced with formal training and tempered against learned judgment from doing thousands of bike fits, you have a master. And the less a new rider knows, the more the fitter must.

There are a few credible fitters who are not triathletes or bike racers but do know bike fit well. But they are the exception.

Having the practical experience of riding the way you do (beginner or expert) makes communication more effective. It also means your fitter had to apply what they’ve learned about bike fit to themselves. It teaches them critical thinking and hones their analytical skills. That makes them a better fitter.

There is a dark side to the super-athlete bike fitter though, see #10 below.

 

  1. Have They Been Trained in Multiple Methods? 

Beware of any shop or fitter than espouses a single fit methodology. If a shop tells you “We do Retül (or Guru, or FitKit, or Body Geometry, or FIST)” but uses no other system and is not familiar with any others, it’s worth learning how deep their understanding of bike fitting and positioning really is.

How long have they been fitting? Have you spoken to any other fit clients of theirs? What are their reviews?

Bike fit systems are only tools to make the fitting process easier, more theatric, and in some cases, to sell bikes.

Dan Empfield, inventor of the triathlon bike and of the Stack and Reach sizing convention teaches a F.I.S.T. bike fitting class in England.

Dan Empfield, inventor of the triathlon bike and of the Stack and Reach sizing convention teaches a F.I.S.T. bike fitting class in England.

The quality of the end product depends on the fitter, not the system. A fitter with experience across a number of systems has a more balanced understanding of the bike fit landscape and assesses your fit from a broader perspective. That likely means you’ll get a better bike fit. Beware of the one-trick pony and the Johnny-come-lately with the shiny new fit bike and laser levels.

 

  1. Do They Espouse One “Fit System” Over Another?

If a fitter uses only the cookie-cutter fitting system associated with the bike brand they sell, you may still get a good fit on that brand, but the fitter’s capabilities may be limited.

As with point #2 above, bike fitting systems are merely tools. All of them will produce a favorable result in the hands of a skilled fitter- but all of them rely on an experienced fitter.

Nice tools, but do they know their stuff?

Nice tools, but do they know their stuff?

When was the last time you asked your bike mechanic, “What kind of wrenches do you use?” As bike fitters become more experienced and capable the system they use becomes less relevant.

It’s the experience and skill of your fitter that matters, not the system they use.

 

  1. Do They Only Suggest New Saddles for Saddle Discomfort?

Saddle discomfort is a leading motive for bike fit, but if the only thing your fitter does to make you more comfortable is bolt different saddles on your bike or try to measure your “sit bones” to sell you the right saddle, then they are a good salesperson, but a poor bike fitter.

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A good fitter will take a holistic approach to saddle discomfort, addressing fit, position, saddle comfort habits, rider fitness and posture and the rider’s clothing to improve saddle comfort.

Bolting on new saddles is a great way to drive sales and usually the most logical approach to the customer, but it is a myopic view of what makes a person comfortable on a bike seat. Your fitter owes you more than a sales pitch on another magic saddle.

 

  1. Do They Claim To Be Able To Make You “More Aero”?

A great way to tell if a fitter is a hack is if they claim to be able to make you more aero without using wind tunnel testing or computational fluid dynamics.

A bike fitter can use empirical, data-driven checks to verify joint angles. They can take specific measurements of frame dimensions and geometry. They can take quantifiable measurements of your body and make mathematical comparisons to determine relevant ratios for bike fit.

A bike fitter cannot do this for aerodynamics. If your bike fitter claims to be able to make you more aerodynamic on your bike they are guessing, and lying.

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Air is 784 times less dense than water, and it is nearly impossible to predict the behavior of water swirling around your finger. Guessing how air will swirl around a pedaling rider at speed in different wind conditions is impossible without empirical analysis.

I know- I’ve been that guy. I spent over ten years telling clients I would get them “more aero” by lowering their handlebars and making them “more aggressive” until a wise man who happened to have a PhD in aerodynamics told me to “stop embarrassing yourself” by trying to guess at aerodynamics.

I’ve been privileged to wind tunnel test with two bike brands and one independent engineering laboratory in three different wind tunnels over 25 years, on the bike and in the control room. I’ve learned that no one can guess what small changes will make a rider faster over the entire length of a triathlon bike leg. And remember, the goal is to get faster, not just “more aero”, and while those two things are closely related, they are not entirely the same– especially for new riders with comfort issues.

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“Jim wondered about riding 112 miles at Lake Placid like this after his bike fit was over.”

Firstly, no bike fitter without a wind tunnel or computational fluid dynamic analytics can guess at the behavior of the boundary layer of air surrounding your body across the entire performance envelope.

Secondly, even if they could, the constantly changing variables of speed, terrain, wind yaw angle and rider posture would make that snapshot in time a very fleeting case study.

Thirdly, while rider aerodynamic drag is the most significant force to overcome in cycling even at moderate speeds, wind tunnel positioning concepts were developed in testing at very high speeds, usually over 25 MPH. British professional triathlon coach Russell Cox discovered the median bike speed for the Men’s 40-44 age category at Ironman Florida, one of the fastest courses in the U.S., was only 17.5 MPH. At these sub-25 MPH speeds there are more opportunities for your fitter to improve your bike split through things that they can actually test for, as opposed to things they are guessing at for speeds you don’t even ride at.

The narrative “Let’s lower your bars to get you more aggressive…” is a valid way to tell if a bike fitter is regurgitating empty rhetoric from YouTube, a triathlon forum, or a three-day fit clinic.

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Faster Bike Shop in Scottsdale, Arizona was the first and is likely the only bike retailer in the U.S. with actual wind tunnel test facilities.

If a fitter tries to critique your aerodynamics challenge them by asking, “Can we measure my drag coefficient before and after any changes?” You’ll likely get the sideways puppy stare or a litany of qualifying excuses. Don’t fall for it. There is only one bike retailer in the United States with a wind tunnel, Faster in Tempe, Arizona. If you aren’t there, then your fitter is guessing.

 

  1. Are They Trying to make you “Straight”?

There is a sub-segment of bike fitting and positioning that tries to enforce symmetry on the human form. The only symmetrical human is Mona Lisa. The rest of us are crooked.

It’s simple to use lasers and shims to try to make a person “straight”, but it may create further skeletal misalignment since our skeletons are usually not straight and symmetrical, especially as we age and accumulate injuries.

The craft of the experienced fitter is to find a functional balance between moderating asymmetries that could contribute to discomfort, or even an injury, and facilitating them. There is likely a “sweet spot” between facilitation and adaptation that provides the optimal benefit to each unique rider. This sweet spot is different for a new triathlete than a person doing their 10th Ironman.

If a bike fitter’s singular goal is to “get you straight” you should tell them to get bent.

 

  1. Do They Acknowledge Their Limitations?

Many bike fitters try to- or claim to be able to- do too much.

A retail bike fitter should be able to recommend a new bike model, frame size name and geometry that fits you optimally for the type of cycling you want to do. They can then adjust that bike for an optimal basic position, often using different handlebar stems, aerobars and other size-specific components to achieve the best result. Then, they can use any number of analytical tools to verify the results against commonly known bike fit standards.

That’s all.

Bike fitters can’t make you comfortable or “fix” you. They can’t add additional fitness or make you less overweight. They can’t produce the perfect saddle that feels right to you. You still have to train, lose weight if you are overweight and get acclimated to sitting on a bike seat. Those things don’t happen in a two-hour bike fit.

Unless the bike fitter in your store has a formal University level credential in anatomy, physical therapy, medicine or exercise physiology that should be their boundary, and they should respect their customers by working within their boundaries.

Beware of the bike fitter who tries to do too much without the degree to back it up. If a bike fitter learns a customer is suffering from a sports injury they are correct to refer them to a qualified physical therapist. Some licensed physical therapists now have formal instruction in bike fitting too, and you (or your health insurance) will pay extra for that, but it is worth it.

If your bike shop bike fitter tries to play physical therapist, limp out of there.

 

  1. How Long Have They Been Doing Bike Fits? 

Ten years ago it was still easy to sell a bike with a quick test ride. Now customers are smart enough to demand a more empirical, data supported process to selecting and adjusting the right bike. As a result there has been an explosion in the number of new “bike fitters” in the last ten years.

Not all of the new bike fitters are good.

Many new bike fitters are adequate and recognize their capabilities- and limitations- but many are also quick-talking hucksters who can sling the lingo and the laser beams to appear credible.

Ask your bike fitter questions about their training, their experience, their own cycling background and their limitations. A fitter who claims to be able to do everything has big shoes to fill.

 

  1. Are They Willing to Recommend Equipment They Don’t Sell?

It’s a good sign if a bike fitter occasionally “walks” a customer by telling them he has nothing in his store to fit them. That suggests their first motive is to get the customer on the right bike, not just get a bike out the door.

A specialty bike shop will stock a well-planned assortment of bikes that have subtly different fit characteristics. Some work well for larger, heavier riders, some for smaller riders, some for long torso cyclists, others for short torso cyclists.

When Triathlon Hall of Famer and inventor of the triathlon bike, Dan Empfield, invented the “Stack and Reach” table for comparing bike dimensions he created a kind of Rosetta Stone for bike fitters to make meaningful comparisons of different bikes and their dimensions. This leveled the playing field and decoded cryptic bike brand size names that have little to do with actual bike dimensions. Empfield’s accounting of bike dimensions gave bike fitters one of their most valuable tools since the tape measure, and also held fitters accountable for being honest.

 

  1. Are They Good Listeners? 

A good bike fitter conducts an interview with his customers, listening to their experiences, their goals and what they are thinking very carefully. This leads to more questions from the bike fitter. In fact, a good bike fitter often asks the customer more questions than the customer asks them when selecting a new bike.

The best bike fitters listen carefully to position their clients optimally on a continuum between facilitation and adaptation. Facilitating a client means the fitter exclusively listens to the client and does what they say makes them comfortable. Adapting a client means the fitter applies known principles of bike fitting without input from the rider and says, “This is right, get used to it.” The best bike fitters know how to listen to their clients to find the optimal balance between these extremes.

Some bike fitters try to be know-it-alls or local heroes. They try to mold each client into a specific posture or fit model, and they have little space left in their effusive knowledge of all things bike fit, cycling and triathlon related to learn anything from a lowly client. If you can’t get your bike fitter to listen to you, let them talk to the hand.

Craig Turner, founder of Nytro, one of the first triathlon shops in the world, is also one of the best listeners and bike fitters in the industry.

Craig Turner, founder of Nytro, one of the first triathlon shops in the world, is also one of the best listeners and bike fitters in the industry.

I once listened to Craig Turner, founder of Nytro in Encinitas, California, work with a bike customer. I was surprised by how little Craig said, how much he listened, and how he restated the key points the customer made back to them. It was clear that Turner was a careful and analytical interviewer, asking the right questions and leaving space for complete answers. When he was done with the interview he had the expertise to make learned and supportable recommendations. It was like listening to an expert attorney advise a client.

 

 

About The Author:

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While Tom Demerly can be full of shit he has been fitting bicycles since 1984 and performed well over 5,000 bike fittings including Olympic athletes Sheila Taormina and Olympian, National Champion and Tour de France rider Frankie Andreu. More importantly, Demerly has fit thousands of first time triathletes and only a few of them still have numb crotches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Jan Mack and Tom Demerly.

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Today is Trish Morgan’s first triathlon.

It’s a beginner triathlon with a ¼-mile swim, 10-mile bike and a 3-mile run.

Trish has run a few 10K’s, a half marathon (she has a “13.1” sticker on her Honda), did a three-day charity bike ride and swam on the intra-mural swim team in junior high school. She followed a “Ten Weeks To Your First Triathlon” program on line.

So Trish is ready.

She’s at the swim start. The loudspeaker says something important. She catches every third word. Her swim cap feels too tight. It’s her first time swimming in this new wetsuit. It feels too tight. She can barely take a full breath. The salesman said that was OK. Her goggles feel so tight they are making her eyes pop out. They keep fogging up. She won’t be able to see where she’s swimming. In the middle of Mud Lake, with foggy goggles and a new wetsuit choking you, what are you supposed to do?

She can’t see where the lifeguard kids on the paddleboards are. How is a kid on a paddleboard supposed to save you anyway? She can’t see the swim buoys that mark course. The loudspeaker keeps saying something. The wetsuit is too tight. They said this was the right size…

It’s too late to worry. Like a herd of lemmings her group with pink swim caps is moving… into the lake. The dark, weed-filled lake. They are like people trying to escape a fire. Trish moves with them, swept along in the crowd. A rising voice inside her begs attention. It begins as a whisper but gathers volume and urgency.

The rush of cold thickness in the water at her thighs makes it hard to move forward. When do you start swimming? It gets deeper. Quickly. The bottom is giving way- sandy and mucky. She feels something touch her foot… A weed? It grabs at her toes, sending a spike of panic. The water is too deep to stand now. Everyone is still moving forward. She has to swim. There is no choice now.

Her first few strokes are desperate churns of the water that now feels too thin to grab or support her weight. At least the wetsuit floats, and her legs seem to bob uncontrollably behind her while she tries to manage some kind of swim stroke other than a panicky dog paddle. But the wetsuit feels like a straightjacket now, binding her arms and squeezing her chest.

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“Put your face in the water and swim,” she tells herself. But the cold bite of the water on her face sends shock through her body, seeming to steal her breath. A jet of icy water shoots down her wetsuit. And through the grey water another swimmer’s heel emerges- she sees it just before it cracks into her left goggle lens. Something touches her foot, a person next to her where she can’t see bumps into her. She cannot see land behind her, she cannot see the first swim buoy, she cannot see a lifeguard. She cannot see in the murky water as the fog in her goggles begins to thicken. Sun glare bounces off the surface blinding her. She can’t see. The buoyancy of her wetsuit is replaced by a rising sensation that she can’t breathe. The voice in her head shouts one word: drowning.

Her chest tightens. She flails against the ever-thinning water. The wetsuit is her enemy now; squeezing what little breath she has out of her lungs. Another swimmer collides with her from behind. And another…

Drowning.

Trish Morgan ends her first race in tears clinging to a lifeguard’s rowboat as he slowly paddles her toward shore.

Trish is a fictional character, but her terrifying ordeal is typical of first time triathletes with no open water swim experience. This horror story is the combination of every swim disaster story I’ve heard during my 30 years in triathlons.

Ask twenty triathletes what the hardest part of a triathlon is, eighteen will tell you the swim.

This contradicts the reality of swimming. Swimming is the easiest part of a triathlon. The swim leg comes at the start when athletes are freshest. It is not weight bearing. There is no foot strike or saddle discomfort. Your body is horizontal so your blood pressure is the lowest of all three sports. It is the only part of a triathlon that is monitored every few yards by safety personnel. You are moving the slowest so risk of impact injury is lower than the bike or run. And unless the water is really rough, there are no hills on the swim course.

But despite the cognitive realities that open water swimming is safe it is consistently perceived as the most difficult and dangerous leg of triathlons, especially for new athletes.

Why do people have swim anxiety and how can they moderate it?

Like any single problem, there is no single solution. Swim anxiety emanates from many origins, some founded in rational fears of drowning, others founded in irrational fears of being attacked by sea life, entangled by weeds or sucked underwater by invisible forces.

Two common triggers are present in open water swim anxiety:

  1. Lack of experience in the open water swim environment. 
  2. Absence of a purposeful, step-by-step approach to building proficiency and competence in the open water.

You can’t just jump in the open water and expect to feel comfortable, especially in a crowded mass swim start. People often have unreasonable expectations when they enter their first triathlons. They have not adequately prepared for open water swimming, both mentally and physically.

How to Overcome Fear: A Meeting with the Sensei.

I went to California to find out how the best open water swimmers in the world, the Navy SEALs, overcome terrifying swim conditions, often at night, usually with a very real enemy trying to find- and kill them.

I’m sitting on a log at the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California. The man sitting at the beach with me is SO1 (SEAL Operator 1st Class) David Goggins.

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Naval Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Dave Goggins (Left). Photo Credit: Outside Magazine.

Goggins is a legend in the Navy SEAL community, a title that most of these naval special warfare operators don’t care for with the recent flood of Navy SEAL books, movies and media attention. They prefer “Naval Special Warfare Operator”.

David Goggins is a graduate of the U.S. Navy Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS), SEAL Qualification Training (SQT), the U.S. Army Ranger School, The U.S. Army Airborne School, and The U.S. Air Force Special Tactics “P” School. Because of challenges he faced during his Basic Underwater Demolition School Goggins had to go through the most difficult phase of BUDs, Hell Week, almost three times. He may be the only person in history to have done so. Goggins’ Hell Week became Hell Month.

Goggins is an African-American, a demographic not populous in competitive swimming. Black Americans do not widely integrate swimming into their adolescent development. According to USA Swimming, “70% of Black-Americans cannot swim”.

Goggins also came from a broken home, has battled obesity and has a heart defect, a hole in his heart, for which he underwent surgery to correct. None of it has stopped him from being a Navy SEAL, Ironman finisher and ultra distance runner.

“How did you overcome physical and mental barriers to swim for hours in the dark?” I asked Goggins.

“You can push yourself past physical limits.” He told me. “You simply have to focus.”

“Really? It’s as simple as one word; ‘focus’?”

Goggins is right. The singular problem new triathletes have with open water swimming and the single largest cause of open water swim anxiety is the failure of athletes to systematically prepare for the specific task of swimming in the open water environment.

New swimmers practice avoidance, not focus, with learning survival in the open water.

They don’t use a step-by-step approach to open water swimming. They literally jump in all at once.

Jan Mack is a corporate executive and an Ironman finisher. She also has swim anxiety. Or, more correctly, had swim anxiety.

In only eight weeks Mack went from terrified of open water swimming to being a competent open water competitor and SCUBA diver. Previously she stood on the beach crying in fear at the start of a race, her friend pulling her by the arm into the water. Now she is a certified PADI Expert Open Water SCUBA diver who swam through underwater caves at 60-feet depth, explored sunken shipwrecks, swam in the open ocean in 5-foot waves three miles offshore and dove in a school of 6-9 foot sharks without an anti-shark cage.

How?

“Crawl, walk, run.” “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”.

Learning any new skill is best done in a systematic process broken into steps.

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This is especially true of skills that require confronting fear. The most common reason for open water swim anxiety is the failure of the athlete to engage in a step-by-step process for acclimating to the open water.

It’s a Sunday morning, eight weeks ago and I am at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center pool in Dearborn, Michigan with Jan Mack.

We are in three-feet of water, about knee-deep, and she is learning to flood her snorkeling mask of water and then clear it underwater without panic.

She’s having trouble.

When Jan’s swim mask is flooded she must continue to breath through her snorkel underwater, but only through her mouth, and she cannot see clearly since her mask is now filled with pool water. When she tries to inhale through the snorkel some of the water inside her flooded mask goes up her nose, producing a drowning sensation. It is terrifying, the same sensation suspected terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay experienced when they were waterboarded. According to most international watchdog organizations, what Jan is subjecting herself to in preparation for open water swimming could be considered “torture”.

In repeated evolutions I explain and demonstrate the process to Jan. Slowly, smoothly, repeatedly. Slow is smooth. Explanation, demonstration. Then Jan tries a practical application by ducking underwater on her knees, flooding her mask, panicking and surfacing. And we start over. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Explanation, demonstration, practical application. Crawl, walk, run.

There is no time limit, no starting gun, no dark water, no pressure.

Jan tries her fifth or sixth time. It works. There is coughing and sputtering and spitting, but it works. She did it. In three feet of clear, warm pool water Jan Mack has become a “Go” at task number 1, clear your mask of water in a pool without showing undue signs of panic and continue breathing through your snorkel underwater.

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Jan Mack advances to the next phase of basic open water training. And the next. And the next.

At each step Jan receives an explanation, demonstration and then performs a practical application of her assigned new skill; using swim fins, wearing a SCUBA tank, maintaining neutral buoyancy… The skills build upon one another. And so does her confidence.

At the same time she is assigned bookwork on open water diving and must take graded tests. Her knowledge about ocean conditions, the sea, her equipment and open water physiology increase. She learns a checklist mentality. She is focused. The new knowledge combined with the skills she practiced beginning in the kiddy pool and advancing to the deep end has built on each other.

Crawl, walk, run. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

She has learned through deliberate progression. Jan Mack focused- exactly like Navy SEAL David Goggins, on specific intermediate goals on the way to a bigger goal.

It’s seven weeks later, Friday, February 19, 2016. Jan Mack and I are in a small boat bouncing through big waves three miles off the coast of Roatan Island, Honduras. 70-feet below us a school of sharks, big sharks, circles. I’m fighting seasickness and Jan is fighting fear. But we have our dive instructor, Russ Nicholson, with us and we have our training and experience up until this moment.

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There are 20 big Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii) swimming below us.

For the next hour Jan swims with the sharks, no shark cage, no protection. She learns the sharks are like any animal in wild; commanding of respect but not aggressive toward people if unprovoked.

“I don’t know why I was ever afraid” she says after her dive training and open water experience.

Jan Mack has systematically ascended the open water swimming learning curve. She knows the open water environment, from top to bottom. She’s experienced every corner of it, from the shallow end of the local kiddy pool to the open ocean with a school of sharks. Whatever frightened her before, known and unknown, has been systematically broken down into smaller tasks, defeated, and resolved.

The open water environment still commands respect, and being three miles off shore, 70-feet down rough water in a school of large sharks only reinforces the need for that respect. But the process of Jan Mack’s indoctrination into the open water environment has also taught familiarity. And competence.

Unlike the fictional Trish Morgan who panicked in her triathlon swim, Jan Mack prepared in a step-by-step process to get acclimated to the open water environment. Now her fear of the water is converted to a learned respect of the objective risks and a significant level of competence in moderating them.