Tips for overcoming fear of open water swimming

This morning, I had the pleasure of conducting an open water swim clinic with my good friend Krista Shultz ( The attendees were primarily beginners with very little open water experience. I began the discussion by querying the group whether they had anxiety about open water swimming. All of them indicated that they indeed had some fears about swimming in open water. Even though I had anticipated this might be the case, I was still somewhat surprised by the degree of anxiety these athlete’s were facing.

The issues were varied. I tried to tackle each of their concerns in an effort to alleviate their discomfort and make open water swimming enjoyable rather than a burden.

Wetsuit constriction
Even a perfectly fitting wetsuit feels restrictive compared to swimming without one. In addition, a wetsuit changes your body position in the water and if you are donning a full suit, it can change your arm swing. If you never wear your wetsuit before race day, these feelings will be unfamiliar and can cause a panic attack in the water. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen during the race is to periodically wear your wetsuit prior to race day. If you do not have access to open water, wear your wetsuit in the pool (just be sure to wash it well after). The more often you wear it, the less strange it will feel on race day.

Mass start
There is no question; the start of a triathlon is frenzied. People jockey for position with no regard for those around them. There can be kicking and hitting. It is not for the faint of heart. Novice open water swimmers (and anyone who wants to avoid the fray, for that matter) should position themselves to the outside or to the back of the group. Try to minimize the number of people immediately around you. For those athletes feeling especially panicked by the mass start, let everyone go and then start your swim. Swimming a Masters workout can help emulate the feeling of a triathlon swim – often workouts have crowded lanes and there can be contact with swimmers around you (I often leave with bruised hands).

Not being able to make the distance
Whether you are racing in a sprint or an Ironman, you should swim the distance in training non-stop at least once to give yourself the confidence you make the distance and the time cut-off. I am constantly amazed at how often people ignore swim training until the last minute. Swimming is not like studying for an exam; you cannot cram.

If you have trouble breathing during swimming in the pool you will have trouble breathing during swimming in the open water.  The most common breathing problem is trying to breathe in and out when you turn your head.  After you take your breath when your head is turned, blow the water out when you head is back in the water. Swimming, unlike running and biking, requires long, slow, controlled breaths. Practice this in the pool until it is second nature.

One of the biggest concerns people have is swimming off course. We have all done it! In fact, earlier this year, almost the entire men’s pro field swam off course at a big race. Know the course beforehand. Some courses are triangular while others are a rectangle. Figure out which side the buoys are on and whether the turn buoys are a different color. Practice bilateral breathing in training just in case the buoys are on your non-preferred breathing side. The buoys can be hard to see, the sun may be bright, the waves very tall. Do not depend on the person in front of you to keep you on course. Yes, you can swim on someone’s feet. But, lift your head every few strokes to make sure you are still on course. Practice lifting your head during your swim training in the pool.

Sometimes, even after all of the mental and physical preparation, a panic attack occurs during the swim. If that happens, turn over on your back and float or grab onto a kayak. Take a few deep breaths until you feel calm and then continue your swim. Try counting your strokes or singing a song to keep yourself calm.

The overwhelming theme here is that you must practice to overcome your fear of the open water. Each of the steps needs practice in the pool first and then implemented in open water. Whenever you have the opportunity to  swim in the open water, take it! Over time, you will feel much more comfortable.

I applaud the athlete’s who came to the clinic. They recognized their fear of the open water and took a major step to overcoming it. They did not wait until race day and just hope for the best. I believe they all left with a little more confidence.

You may also like...

14 Responses

  1. Moonmaid says:

    This is all good advice, especially about practicing in open water. There are no pool ends to push off of every length in open water – it can be much more tiring. It can also be a little claustrophobic, since there will be little visibility in the water. Practice swimming with eyes closed while in water, and only opening them when you turn your head or lift your head. Visualizing the swim before you do it helps too. And after all of this, if you still have a panic attack, just do what I did once on a long swim when that panicked voice inside me wanted to DNF and climb into a rescue canoe – tell yourself that you didn't train all those long months just to quit at the beginning of the race! I also thought of how disappointed my friends and family would be, and how inspired they would be if I finished. Just remember, the worst part of the swim is to the first buoy. Once you make it there, you WILL finish!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this! – This will hopefully help me start training again and be able to swim in open water with out having a panic attack!

  3. SeekingBostonMarathon says:

    Thank you so much! Just the advice I needed heading into my first ever Sprint Tri.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I always start off slow and easy, then pick up the pace as I know the end is doable and in sight. Just know that if worse comes to worse you can alway roll on your back and do the old elementary back stroke. I did this stroke my first tri the entire way, made decent time too. : )

  5. R says:

    I had a severe fear of the water for most of my life. Triathlon was my motivation to deal with it. I tell people it's not that I don't still get afraid or panic during races, it's that I have the skills to cope and move past the panic.

  6. Jen G says:

    Thank you for writing this!! My first Tri, I made sure to concentrate on swimming when training but neglected to do it in open water. Although I'd been swimming my whole life, as soon as I put my face into the water in that first race and realized I couldn't see I got that claustrophobic panic. I ended up doing kind of a bastardized dog paddle that probably looked HILARIOUS but it got me around the buoy and onto the bike leg! I practiced in open water a bit for my second tri and managed to reduce my time in the water by nearly half but I still have a long, long way to go – and these tips are exactly what I needed. Thanks!!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have heard the swimming is the hardest part. Thank you for the valuable information. I have use of open water and plan on spending as much time in it as possible, especially with my wetsuit on!

  8. Anonymous says:

    It is so true that the wetsuit feels restrictive when swimming if you never wore one before!!! Practice with the wetsuit in open water not once or twice until you are comfortable with it then you will be ready for the race.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I fear being eaten by alligators in the local fresh water lakes. There aren't really a lot of them in the lakes around Dallas, but it doesn't help that my training buddies jokingly call out "Alligator!" and point out into the lake just before we start swmming. 🙂

  10. Anonymous says:

    That was a very helpful article. After five sprint triathlons, I continue to experience mild panic attacks during the swim. I hyperventilate nearly the entire 1/4 mile distance which carries over onto the bike leg. I'll have to try the "singing a song" technique! Thank you for the advice!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Good tips. I always thought I was a great swimmer until I did my first Tri. I paniced 100 meters into the swim, and had to grab a kayak. I was not ready for the noise, splashing chaos, ect.. Regained my nerves, and finished the swim. I still am a little quesy before a competivie swim, but I relax my breathing during the swim and tell my self to make each stroke better than the one before it. Also, if you do have a slow swim, you can always hammer it on the bike make up the time!!!

  12. Josie says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This couldn't of come at a better time. I just jumped into a dirty green HOT lake for my first open water practice and was so freaked out I almost cried. Now I know I'm not being a big baby, and if I keep at it, I actually might be okay for my first sprint.

  13. Jim M. says:

    Key advice: If you're not a good swimmer, don't start in the front. I'm not the fastest runner, I'd never start in the front of a run, have the same respect for swimmers. I used to be nice and try to swim around people at the start, but if you were arrogant enough to put yourself there, I will go over you.

  14. says:

    So true about the dirty, green, HOT lake-also my first full tri, although I did one thing differently: I actually did cry during a practice with my VERY patient and kind swim coach..last year I panicked and chickened out on the swim-but everyone has their tricks-the first bouy was definitely my goal-and I did finish-on my back-but just wait till my next one!! (did I mention I grew up on this very lake?jeesh!!)