Worst Case Scenarios In Open Water
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Every athlete ever to skid, stumble, or crawl
across a finish line has a race-day horror story to share. Triathletes and
cyclists recall getting a flat or going down on the road. Runners compare notes
on excruciating cramps, blisters, and shin splints.
But perhaps the most anxiety-inducing tales come
from swimmers, who live in constant fear of experiencing their worst open-water
moments again and again.
Lots can go wrong in the water; after all, we
evolved to live comfortably on land. From losing a pair of goggles at the start
of a race to experiencing a debilitating cramp in deep water, swimmers have it
Below is a list of the most common open water
Worst Case Scenarios, and how you can prevent them from occurring
or at least cope with them should they come up in competition.
Ways to avoid having a worst case
scenario become your worst race scenario
1. Losing your goggles
Nothing is more dispiriting than rushing into the
water at the sound of a starting gun to have your goggles snap off. Its
happened to the best of us, and although its rare, it can be the
death-knell for ones racing goals (not to mention ones contact
lenses if you wear them).
Always make sure to inspect your goggles the
night before your race. Pull the straps gently and look for small tears and
ripples that indicate wear and tear, especially at the clips where the straps
Often, you will find that straps can look shiny
and new while showing signs of deterioration at the seams and buckles near the
eyepiece. If so, get another pair of goggles and adjust them before you go to
sleep; the following race-day morning will be hectic and nerve-wracking, so you
wont want to think about preparing a new pair of goggles to fit just
Remember that sun, chlorine, and moisture all add
to the elements that can cause a strap to break, so take care to keep your
goggles dry and wrapped in a towel when not in use.
It is not uncommon to see extra-paranoid swimmers
bringing a spare pair of goggles with them during a race (around their neck,
wedged into their swimsuits, or even tied around their ankles!). While this is
a surefire way to add insurance to your race experience, it is highly
unnecessary and cumbersome. Goggles around your neck are dangerous (choking
hazard), and all other options are nothing more than dead weight.
One is much better off anticipating a Worst
Case Scenario and being prepared for it: Try swimming without your
goggles, and accustom yourself to opening your eyes under water. Such drills
are invaluable to your confidence should the unexpected occur, and you will be
able to cope with such an unforeseen circumstance without sacrificing your
2. Getting a cramp
Leg cramps while swimming are very common among
triathletes, most often striking the calves. This is because triathletes are
predominantly lower-body athletes whose legs by virtue of their defined
musculature and overall training fatigue are more prone to muscle spasms
in the water as their less-flexible legs flay stiffly back and forth.
One obvious preventative measure is to practice
lots of stretching, not just before your race but throughout the season. Leg
flexibility is relative, and triathletes are habitually less flexible than
swimmers. Concentrate on ankle flexibility so that you are able to point your
toes on the down-kick of your kick cycle; often, triathletes kick incorrectly
with their feet at a 90 degree angle to their shins, contributing to the
likelihood of a calf cramp while adding extra drag.
Potassium is known to prevent cramps. If you
dont take supplements or eat bananas regularly, that could be your answer
if youre known to suffer from exercise-induced cramps.
Should a cramp occur during a race, do not panic.
Be aware that you are experiencing one and stop swimming. Tread water and
slowly try rotating your foot at the ankle to work out the cramp (if it occurs
in your calf). Oftentimes you can stop a cramp with this approach. The severe
cases occur when an athlete panics and tenses up all muscles in the body,
resulting in further muscle contractions and convulsions.
3. Your swim cap tears/falls off
It may not seem like the end of the world, but to
a swimmer with long hair, losing her cap is a miserable experience. In
addition, a swimmer whose cap falls off usually loses her goggles too, since
goggles traditionally go over the cap.
Obviously, an easy solution to this potential
problem is to wear your hair short if you compete in open water. You can (and
should) still wear a cap, for warmth and easy identification by race officials.
But the longer your hair, the more likely it is to get in your eyes (or worse,
your mouth) should your cap rip or slip back on your head. A tight ponytail
tied with elastic will at least keep the hair from spreading across your face
if you insist on keeping it long
You might consider putting your goggles on
under your cap, a unique technique favored by open-water champ Dawn
Heckman. This prevents you from losing your goggles should your cap
unexpectedly fall off.
I personally never like to wear a brand-new cap on
race day. This is because new caps have not been stretched out by a few prior
uses, and are thus more likely to slip off the first time they are worn.
Conversely, it is important not to wear a cap you
have been wearing for a few weeks, as it could be stretched out to the point of
being loose enough to fall off. If the race rules dont require mandatory
color-coded and pre-supplied caps, choose one you have worn a few times that
fits snugly but not too tight. Make sure to inspect it along the seam for tiny
cracks that could turn into tears.
4. Brand-new blisters
As devoted cross-trainers, we sometimes end up
with cross-training injuries. Most common (and annoying) among these is the
fresh running blister that pops open in the water, resulting in that loose bit
of skin that burns and flaps every time it gets wet.
While some may hesitate to even call this an
injury, anyone who has ever swum with an open blister in salt water
can attest that it is excruciatingly painful, maddening, and distracting.
Band-Aids are seldom effective, as they slip off
within moments of entering the water (especially if you are kicking
aggressively). However, a Band Aid wrapped with water-proof tape has worked for
me in the past (Ive wrapped the tape around my entire foot bridge, or
toe, depending on the location of the blister).
Second Skin is a great solution if your blister is
a few days old. This product, which you apply to the blister with a small
brush, dries over the wound creating a second skin, allowing you
the freedom of a painless foray into the water. This product should only be
used if the blister is a few days old, as the label suggests.
Remember to monitor your blister in the days
before a race and snip off the dead skin surrounding it prior to competition.
Although it is never recommended to cut away the skin soon after the blister
pops (that may result in infection), after a few days it is safe.
While it still may sting underneath, the removal
of the loose skin will eliminate the distracting flapping you might
feel under water.
Chafing is the most easily overlooked Worst
Case Scenario that undoubtedly can cause the most grief. Chafing occurs
in salt water, where areas of your body rub together and create sports
hickeys that can last for days (and sting throughout the rest of your
Common chafing areas are the underarms, neck, and
around swimsuit straps and openings. Chafing also occurs if you wear a wetsuit,
mostly around the neck or armpits.
Vaseline is an easy solution to chafing, and any
serious open-water swimmer never packs a swim bag without it. A small amount
rubbed around the susceptible areas is all you need to avoid chafing, though
Vaseline is not recommended if you use a wetsuit (the petroleum jelly
can damage the rubber and cause it to deteriorate over time).
There is a great wetsuit-friendly lubricant on the
market that triathletes and surfers swear by, called BodyGlide. Found in most
sporting goods stores and surf shops, BodyGlide works as well as Vaseline,
without the greasy residue. It also comes in a convenient roll-on stick (like
anti-perspirant), with none of the mess that results from the manual
application that Vaseline requires.
Open-water swims in the ocean can be a lot more
frightening should you face a set of 10-foot shorebreak when the gun goes off
(and any sensible race director will consider postponing the race should that
In the event that you find yourself facing down a
Perfect Storm-sized behemoth of salt-water force, your first instinct
may be to swim over it.
The smartest way to avoid a breaking wave is to
dive directly under it. If possible, dive to the bottom and pull yourself
forward by grabbing the sand. This serves two purposes: one, it lets the wave
pass overhead and safely keeps you out of range of its pull; and two, it allows
you to use the ocean floor as leverage to pull yourself forward while
less-seasoned competitors get whitewashed and thrown back.
As frightening as waves look, their bark is always
bigger than their bite from the oncoming swimmers point of view.
Underneath, however, the water is quiet and still, and ideal for bypassing the
Of course, the above Worst Case
Scenarios seem rather quaint for those swimmers who may have encountered
a shark or Portuguese Man-Of-War. However, they are common horror stories that
require very little of you should you wish to avoid them in the future.
Pre-awareness is the most important step in
avoiding these pratfalls and having a great race.
If you have a Worst Case Scenario that you'd
like to share with Active.com readers, e-mail Alex for a future