Dealing with the fear factors of open water


Given the factors that may make you feel anxious and/or even panic during open water swimming, here are several strategies that may prevent normal competitive stress from crossing the line into a potentially dangerous panic attack. 

  1. Be aware that feelings of anxiety are common and normal responses to open water swimming. Even very accomplished and experienced pool swimmers describe “freaking out” in their first several open water practices or races.
  2. Practice swimming in groups in open water or pool situations. Swim closely together for parts of the session, mimicking as much as possible what it would be like to swim tightly against others so you can practice your stroke, breathing, and mindset in a crowded, confined situation. Take turns being the swimmer in the middle of a small group, in which the outside swimmers box in the swimmer and make frequent contact with the swimmer’s body. If you don’t have many opportunities to swim in groups in open water, try to replicate swimming closely with one or two other swimmers in the same lane—one against the lane line and one right down the middle of the lane. Take turns with one swimmer leading and the other swimmer right against his/her shoulder, elbows, hips, or knees, making constant contact throughout the lap.
  3. Schedule as many open water practices as possible. The fear of the unknown will be reduced when you know what to expect. Try different open water situations, with different water temperatures and different amounts of turbulence (waves). Learn how to sight – knowing where you are and where you are heading will help you feel more comfortable.
  4. Schedule lessons with a swimming coach who specializes in open water swimming or triathlons. Learn from individuals who can help with unique open water techniques (such as sighting). The more confident you are with your swim technique, and the stronger you are in open water, the more likely you’ll be to deal with the challenges posed by open water races.
  5. Register for or attend short, local open water races, pier swims, or other events. This helps to normalize the environment and adjust to known stressors just by exposing yourself to these events.
  6. Get your wetsuit and try it out before you use it in a competitive situation. Wetsuits actually give you buoyancy, which can be great in a race. They also can protect you from stings and brushes with vegetation. However, the feeling of constriction is something you will need to get used to.
  7. Position yourself in a comfortable place to start the race. Starting at the end of the pack or on the outside of the pack (to the outermost left or right side) may allow you to create a comfortable distance between you and the rest of the competitors and alleviate fears of being trapped or run over. When you get more comfortable in these situations, you can raise your competitiveness by moving closer into the pack to achieve the best possible finishing position; until then, choose safety over performance.
  8. Utilize safety techniques at the onset of panic. If at any time in a race you feel that your fears are pushing you over the line from an anxious to a panicked state, immediately gain control by utilizing safety techniques to get your face out of the water and regain composure and a more controlled breathing state: a) roll over onto your back and float there as you take deep breaths and get your emotions under control, b) stop swimming and tread water as you do the same thing, not proceeding until you are back under control, c) wave your arms above your head towards a race official or spectator and signal that you are in trouble.
  9. Control your emotions—and physiology—using deep breathing strategies. If you don’t feel capable of taking long breaths, your goal should be to gradually slow your respiration rate to reflect a state of control.
  10. Control negative and panic-invoking self-talk. Negative self-talk can elevate normal worries to an irrational fear of many things, including ocean wildlife, water temperature, crowds, or other anxieties. Learn to regulate your internal dialogue by replacing negative statements with more positive or reassuring ones.
  11. Utilize visualization to mentally rehearse open water racing situations. One of the safest and most effective methods of coping with open water anxieties is to imagine being exposed to a stressor and then seeing yourself successfully dealing with it. In your mind, feel yourself swimming in competitive and uncomfortable situations with confidence and calmness, making the image as realistic as possible. Attend a few races and imagine what it would be like to perform in that situation, each time feeling yourself going from a state of anxiety about a particular stressor to a state of being in control, rolling over onto your back to take deep breaths, or otherwise continuing to swim in a more controlled manner.
  12. Talk to experienced open-water swimmers or triathletes to see how they cope with anxieties and stressful competitive or environmental situations.
  13. Never be afraid to seek help in dealing with anxiety or panic, either during a race or in preparing for one.

These strategies will help you to cope with the anxiety that may arise in an open water situation and reduce the chance that you will panic when you are in the water. Open water swimming presents an opportunity to further challenge yourself as a swimmer and competitor but it’s important to be physically and mentally prepared so that you will succeed and enjoy the experience.

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