XTERRA Couch to Trail – Preparing for the Swim

Photos from the EX2 Off-Road Triathlon and Duathlon. Rocky Gap State Park, Flintstone, MD, Sunday, July 12, 2009.

By Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance, 5x Age Group XTERRA World Champ

When I competed in my first XTERRA Championship race in 2009, the swim was my biggest fear and ended up being one of the worst experiences I’ve had.  I panicked upon plunging into the 58-degree water, started hyperventilating in my too-tight wetsuit and was unable to keep my face in the frigid, black water.  I switched over to backstroke and floated on my back for what felt like hours.  All the others went by and there was nothing I could do but watch them.  I eventually made it out of the water, but I was mentally and physically exhausted from that 25-minutes of flailing and trying to survive.  I repeated to myself, “Never, ever again will I be in this situation.”  I completed the race that day and finished with a hellbent determination to conquer the swim and my fear of the open water.

Coming up with a solid swim training plan and preparing mentally in the months and weeks leading up to the race will allow you to feel confident the morning of the race and can help to squelch almost all your fears (except of the sharks).


You have all the gear and have chosen a pool, but now it’s time to actually get to work. You can’t show up on race day and think it won’t be that big of a deal. If you’re unprepared, prepare to panic. It’s that simple. When it comes to swimming, you should focus on three things: technique, speed, and endurance.

Of the three sports, swimming is undoubtedly the most technical, and focusing on good technique is paramount when you first start swimming.  Some athletes believe they need to churn out lap after lap in the pool, but this usually does not equal a strong swim on race day. These same athletes sometimes find that they are not as prepared for the conditions they face in the open water.  Add in cloudy water, strong chop and currents, or flailing limbs of hundreds of other swimmers, and all that pool training suddenly seems less useless.

Although increasing endurance is indeed a significant factor in racing successfully, it’s only part of the story. Developing a strong technique should be your primary emphasis if you are a beginner swimmer, or if you are not as strong in the swim. This will allow you to gain efficiency, which is a key factor to making the water’s resistance work in your favor.  (Read Josiah’s tips on breathing patterns here).

Developing efficient technique will also diminish some of the anxiety that accompanies the open water swim. You will be able to maneuver around other swimmers more effectively, swim straighter and stay relaxed and balanced in the water.  Focusing on efficient swimming will also help keep your heart rate lower.  One of the best things you can do for yourself as a beginner triathlete is hire a swim coach.  He or she will analyze your stroke and assign you specific drills to help make your stroke smoother and more efficient.

In addition to developing technique, your pool training should include strength and endurance work using a combination of drill and interval-based swim sets to diminish both strength and skill-related anxiety potential on race day.  Practice swimming the distance you will be completing during the race and incorporate longer swimming sets into your workouts. Implement drills that are targeted at fine-tuning open water skills, such as turns, sighting and drafting. If you’re able to swim with a group, try removing the lane lines and swimming together to at least partially simulate the chaotic conditions you will face during the swim. The pool serves as an excellent home-base for specific training, so be sure to spend some time there even if you have access to open water year-round.

Finally, practice in open water, ideally with others, whenever possible.  Many swimmers face anxiety in the open water simply because they haven’t familiarized themselves with race-day conditions.

Swimming in a clear, calm pool with a lane all to yourself is a far cry from the open water, where crowds, choppy conditions or extreme cold can lead to disorientation and subsequent panic attacks. In order to minimize the discomfort you will be feeling during the swim, you need to prepare for the potential scenarios you’ll face by practicing in the open water.

Mental preparation is also something you need to focus on when it comes to open water swimming. Some mental tactics are acquired through experience; while others can be learned and utilized by the time your first race rolls around. The purpose of these tactics is to build a level of race-day confidence that will allow you to optimize your abilities. Treat race day like a training day. This doesn’t apply to your physical performance, rather how you approach the event mentally.  Keep in mind that training has placed you in situations involving swimming, biking, and running before. There should be no reason why you can’t execute these situations on race-day. If anything, race-day is just another long workout, one that you’re completing with a bunch of other athletes.  Speaking of other athletes, you will be dealing with a bunch of them in a small space where physical contact is expected. Be ready for body contact, and sometimes lots of it, as well as frigid water temperatures. Jumping into cold water can send a wave of shock through your body, but if you mentally prepare for the experience and know what to expect, you may not psych yourself out as you would have otherwise.

Race Morning!

On race morning, get in the water!  Get a feel for the temperature.  Put your face in and swim around.  Warm up your muscles and prepare them for the race.  At the very least, swim for 5-10 minutes with a few short bursts to get your heart rate elevated.  Don’t stand there on shore swinging your arms back and forth like Michael Phelps and expect to have a great swim.  If you are a slower swimmer do not start on the front line.  Instead start back and on the outside to avoid the masses at the first buoy.  Remember, just because the gun goes off, that doesn’t mean you have to dive in and swim as hard as you can. Stop and breathe for a few seconds and then take the plunge.  Athletes often get so caught up in the moment that they all out sprint the first 200 meters, forget to breathe and swim the next 400 in panic mode trying to calm themselves down.  It’s okay go out hard, but back it off quickly and concentrate on your breathing. If you do feel panic coming on, slow down, tread water for a few seconds, get your bearings and press on.  Stay calm and keep swimming.

Keep in mind that every triathlete has had a first race in their career, and has felt anxious about the swim.  Each race is an invaluable learning experience, and when it’s over, you will walk away with more confidence and something new to take with you to the next race.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little  and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance.  Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.  


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