This is a topic that many triathletes don't talk about too much either because of embarrassment or fear. But it is a REAL concern to some so I will address it right here. I am coming from the perspective of AFTER the fact. In other words, I am talking about what you can do to calm down after a panic attack in the water and get yourself back on track to swim with confidence in the open water again.
I have done MANY races- I can't even count- I am guessing about 50 or 60 in my career. Many were in pools, but a lot of them were in lakes, ocean, bay, or river. I can honestly say that I never had an issue with fear of the open water until this past fall. I was at a swim practice in Rotterdam, Netherlands and the water temperature was 62 degrees and air temperature about the same. The wind was picking up, it was raining sideways, and it seemed like the temperature was dropping significantly while we were waiting to get in the harbor. Once in the water it was as if a SHOCK came over me and the water was so cold (mind you I live in TEXAS and trained in 95-100 degree temperatures all summer) that I just froze. I felt like I couldn't put my face in the water, I had trouble breathing, and I felt like I just couldn't go on. So I started easy breast stroking and doing freestyle with my head out of the water. I felt freaked out because it was as if my body was playing tricks on me. Everybody else was swimming along toward the big yellow buoy and there I was breast stroking feeling kinda embarrassed. I thought that if I made it to the buoy I could stop and hang on for a minute or so and be ok. Luckily, when I got there I started to get my groove back and actually swam the last 300 yards fairly normally, although still a little scared.
For the next 3 days I kept on re-living my strange experience wondering if I would panic like that on RACE DAY. My husband had many pep talks with me telling me I would be ok and that it wouldn't happen again. I had to get my act together. So here is how I MENTALLY ADJUSTED my thinking to feel confident on race day:
1. Realize you are NOT alone. You would be surprised how many athletes I talk to that have had a panic attack in the water, especially iron distance athletes. I have talked to MANY athletes that have had some sort of anxiety in the water over their career.
2. Talk about it openly. This will make you feel VALIDATED and you'll be surprised at how many of your peers have experienced some sort of open water fear. Tell your spouse. Tell your COACH. Talk to other athletes.
You will get different perspectives on how others have coped.
3. WIN THE MENTAL GAME. There are lots of tools out there to fill your brain with empowering thoughts. Download a podcast or playlist with positive affirmations. You can always listen to these as you fall asleep at night. Visualization is a great way to see yourself as you want to on race day. There are lots of resources for visualization too on iTunes or Amazon.
4. Practice. Practice. More practice. If you are afraid of the open water because of your panic in the water then the best thing you can do is this: GET BACK IN THE OPEN WATER. Face the fear and do it anyway. You can start out by just swimming 100 yards to the first buoy or dock and work up from there. KEEP going a little longer each time and soon you will find that you can make the entire distance with confidence. Another important thing you can do is GO TO THE SWIM PRACTICE if it is offered the day before the race. This is a GREAT way to feel more confident and have a good feel for the swim course. Note some landmarks and the way the current is moving. Swim around several of the buoys so you know where you are going. Knowledge=Power.
5. Wear a wetsuit. It's almost impossible to drown in a wetsuit because it's made of thick rubber. So RELAX. You've been training a LONG time and you possess the swim skills necessary to make your race happen. Take that and run with it.
6. Stay with the crowd. When you focus more on staying with the crowd you stop worrying if you are going to panic in the water. Keep your mind on your drafting skills and swim stroke because this will take the focus off any anxiety you may have. Pick one or two swimmers to follow for a while and before you know it, you are half way through the swim.
I hope this post helps you realize that you don't have to fear the open water because of one episode of anxiety. Work on these skills and you will soon feel confident again and ready to attack your next race.