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How to Stop Freaking Out in the Open Water

You are a good swimmer. You’ve put in many hours in the pool this year and

have been quite consistent with your workouts. You are setting your alarm for 5am a few mornings a week and schlepping yourself to the pool in the dark. Maybe you’ve gotten your 100 yard time trial down to a personal best by now. You’ve worked hard for this and you deserve a great swim at your next race.

Fast forward to race day. Your bike and run transition is all set up and you are slightly nervous as you make your way in your wetsuit toward the swim start. You are making casual but nervous chatter with a few athletes near you. You take down your last gu before placing yourself on the dock for an in water start. The water is cold AF, the waves are more choppy than you would like, and by now you are pretty nervous yet excited.

Off goes the gun and right away you are in the midst of a large group of age groupers gunning for the first buoy. Someone knocks your goggles to the side of your face, and another swimmer hits you hard on the head with their elbow. You are feeling a little overwhelmed, but get your bearings about you and continue on. All of a sudden you feel like you can no longer put your face in the water. You are slowly watching all the other swimmers plow ahead of you and suddenly you find yourself in a full blown panic attack.

By now you have gulped water, choked a few times, and maybe even had to stop. A strange sense of fear sets in and you are breast stroking trying to stay afloat in this chaos of cold choppy salt water. You can’t believe what’s happening! You are a strong swimmer with a lot of yardage under your belt. You are mortified at the thought of being last out of the water. WTF?

If this story sounds familiar I want you to trust in me that you are not alone my friend. Panicking in the water happens to the best of us. It’s one of those triathlon lessons that you need to learn and overcome. I am going to teach you how to do this right now based on everything I’ve learned in my many years of racing.

Anxiety defined is the feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. (Oxford Language dictionary) It can sneak it’s way into your race start, make you freakishly afraid, and ruin what could have been a great swim. It can have a snowball effect. The unfortunate reality with anxiety is that it creates more anxiety when you think of having another panic attack, episode, or anxious event in the water.

Friend do not dismay. I have come to save you from panicking in the water, and if you feel yourself going down that road again, fear not because I have a few strategies that can help you calm down, feel safe again, and swim confidently in the open water.

Before the race

*Have a well thought out plan before the race. Survey the scene and identify your buoys, landmarks, and kayaks etc. so you know where to look in the event that you need help.

*Mindful meditations- in the weeks leading up to the race, download some mindful meditations that help you to calmly notice your body and whatever it is feeling without reacting to anything. Check Apple music, Spotify, or Amazon. All you need is 10 or 15 minutes a day to help yourself stay calm and not overreact to sensations.

*Affirmations-write these down, record them, or put them in a notebook. Read or listen often!

1.I am a strong swimmer and have put in more than enough yardage to be ready for this swim.

2.I am going to swim like I always do with confidence and consistency.

3.I’ve swam in the open water many times and I get better and better each race.

4.I picture myself remaining calm, swimming with ease, and feeling confident in the water.

5.My wetsuit is made of rubber and it’s highly unlikely that I will drown in a wetsuit.

6.Whatever fears come up, I will embrace them, (picture yourself giving fear a huge hug) and calmly continue on to T1.

7.I have a rock solid plan that I can revert to in case I feel panicky.

*Practice your “safety” stroke prior to the race-this is a temporary stroke that you can use to get your bearings, calm down, and feel safe. For example breast stroke or side stroke is a great “safety” stroke to keep you moving while staying calm.

*If the race is wetsuit legal, by all means put on your wetsuit. Not only does a wetsuit keep you more buoyant, but it builds confidence knowing that it’s really hard to drown when you are wearing rubber that makes you float more.

*Consider journaling your thoughts about your pending swim-write down your deepest thoughts about it such as your readiness, the work you put in, the swim course, any fears you may have etc. Dumping all of this onto paper can be very freeing and releases any deep emotions you may have about swimming in the open water. Refute any irrational fears and replace that negative talk with messages of confidence and safety.

In the event of a panic attack

Start sending yourself messages of safety:

*Even though I feel scared, I know I’ve done this many times and gotten through it. I know how to calm down and feel safe again.

*The first buoy is only a short distance away. I can stop there and regroup if I need to.

*I will use my safety stroke to calm down then get back to freestyle when I am ready.

*I’m wearing a wetsuit and I am safe.

*This is just anxiety and it will pass.

*I have felt anxiety before and gotten through it. Now is no different.

It’s not the end of the world if you have to regroup at a buoy or kayak.

Chances are that with consistent messages of safety your anxiety will stop in a few minutes and you will be able to continue on. The key is to have a plan what you will do in the event of anxiety or fear. Write it out, study your affirmations, do some mindfulness meditations.

I hope you find this article helpful for your next open water swim. Need a triathlon coach for your next race? Click HERE to send me a message and I will get back to you right away.

Mary Timoney

USA Triathlon Coach

Ironman University Certified Coach

USA Cycling Coach

ACSM Certified Personal Trainer


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