Many years ago, open water swimming sounded scary to me. The fear of the unknown, no blue line to follow, the absence of the reassuring sight of the pool deck, the murky waters, the waves… What if I can’t stay afloat? What if there is something underneath me? What if I can’t keep up with the group? There were so many reasons not to try. But I was contemplating racing an aquathlon (a fun race format including repetitions of swim and run) and maybe a triathlon so skipping open water training was not an option… so I decided to take a leap of faith.
With a certain amount of anxiety, I joined the open water swimmers’ group of Hong Kong for my first session. The newly formed group of die-hard swimmers met every Saturday morning. I was scared and intimidated.
Fortunately, I was warmly welcomed by Lloyd, the founder and leader of the group who reassured me with a strong Australian accent that he would be waiting for me so I could go at my own pace.
My heart was pounding as we were about to hit the water. I started swimming too fast. This caused me to hold my breath, tense my muscles and rotate too many times in the hope of getting more breaths. I looked up and everyone was so far away… My breathing was shallow, my heart was still beating too fast. What if I gave up and returned to the beach now? But Lloyd was effortlessly gliding beside me. “Slow down, keep your head down and exhale in the water, stop fighting… glide mate,” he reassured me. I nodded, focused on my exhale, and slowed down. I started to glide… and it got easier. I relaxed. And from that moment on I was hooked.
Swim after swim I realized that the sport is about breathing. Each slow and long exhale under water releases tension in the body. I learned that my breathing struggles were not from lack of inhaling, but from lack of exhaling properly. I learned quickly you cannot fight the ocean- your only option is to become one with the water. Over time, I learned to glide with the waves like Lloyd and realized that the absence of the line in a pool was an invitation to free myself and explore my boundaries. The absence of visibility provided me with a strange sensation of calm, and I started to enter meditative states.
Now open water is an important part of my life. Of course, swimming helps me maintain my fitness. But, more importantly, it helps me with my mental health. Through my experience in the water, I have learned that the mental benefits of open water swimming are extraordinary.
The biggest benefits I have seen are:
Swimming and breath regulation provide a well needed break from the stress and anxiety of our busy lives.
Since you focus on long exhales while swimming, you learn to regulate your breath into a calm and relaxing rhythm. This triggers the parasympathetic nervous system- the mode in which your body best recovers and heals faster. In this state, your neocortex (the modern part of your brain responsible for your rational thought, imagination, and creativity) is also fully operating.
In contrast, when we are under stress, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered. Our reptilian brain takes over and thinking rationally and reasonably gets compromised. In addition our body’s healing mode shuts down. This mode is also known as flight and fight- a mode designed to be activated only for a couple of minutes at a time. Swimming moves you away from this flight and flight mode, allowing your body to activate its internal healing powers.
Swimming can induce a meditative state.
The absence of a wall in the ocean means you can swim for hundreds of meters without stopping. Once you get into a steady pace, your body goes auto-pilot and you can enjoy minutes of calm and focus. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness are well established, and you can get all that within a single swim: clarity, calm, serenity.
You learn about your inner self.
Open water can be daunting at first but as you face your fears, fight your inner demon, slay the dragon of the unknown – you break the threshold of your own limitations. You learn to be respectful of the ocean, be mindful of the risks but you also learn your fears are mostly the product of your imagination. As long as you remain in the here and now, control your breathing and remain mindful of your environment you learn that not much can hold you back.
Whether you make it outside the safety net for the first time or swim your first 5km, the reward of conquering your fears is always memorable. Swim after swim you get mentally stronger.
You learn you can use your imagination to create empowering thoughts and then….
You learn about resilience.
As you get more experienced, there is a moment in your swim life when you want to swim longer or start racing. You are now ready to harvest the mental benefits of endurance sports. You learn to get outside your comfort zone, realize you can finish what you have started and that your body and mind are much stronger than you believed.
There is also this optional moment where you decide to swim as late as possible in the season without your wetsuit. You learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Yes it is cold sometimes but you feel proud of yourself and get to boost your immune system in the process. You learn to observe the sensation on your skin as you dip into the cold water and embrace the stinging and numbing feeling. Soon you don’t notice the cold and feel weirdly happy, alive, stronger, feeling you can achieve more.
Swimming can improve your social life.
Granted that you usually don’t talk so much in the water… but the benefits of a social life within a welcoming and supporting community is a huge mental reward. After the swim, you gather with friends from all backgrounds, share stories about swimming, about life. We are all the same in the water: a body, a swimsuit, a pair of swim goggles, a swim cap and the same bright safety buoy. Age, gender, occupation, status, wealth, sexual preference, political opinion, religious preference don’t matter as we realize we are all deeply connected by our love for swimming.
Open water has transformed my life in so many ways: athletically, mentally and socially. Since overcoming my fear of the open water, I have gone on to win 3 Asian Championship titles in Triathlon, change my career trajectory and meet countless friends within the community.
My former mentor, Lloyd, moved back to Australia a few years ago and asked me to run the Open Water swimmers of Hong Kong. Now I am the one swimming along anxious new swimmers, inviting them with a smile to exhale and glide. I know this is the beginning a rewarding journey they can’t hardly imagine yet and I am grateful to be a part of it.
If your keen to reap the mental benefits of open water swimming feel free to join the group I lead every Saturday.
We swim at REPULSE BAY, CHUM HUM KOK, DEEP WATER BAY, STANLEY MAIN BEACH
New to Open Water Group: 1.00pm – 60min swim – 1.5 to 1.8km
Minimum requirement: Be able to swim 500m freestyle non stop
Advanced group: 2.15pm – 90 min swim – 2.5 to 3.8km
Want to learn more about Olivier and his take on mindfulness? READ Mindful Mindset with Olivier Courret
Interested in more ways to exercise in the open water? READ Stand-up Paddle Boarding: 4 Reasons to Exercise in the Great Outdoors
Written exclusively for WELL, Magazine Asia by Olivier Courret