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Overcoming fear in the open water

An article I had published today in the USA Triathlon Multisport newsletter

A common challenge I hear from athletes about open water swimming is how to overcome fear and anxiety in the water.

I have found that having athletes focus on three key steps in preparation goes a long way to reducing stress, while increasing safety and enjoyment.


The first step is one I learned from a visually impaired athlete who attended one of my swim clinics. She said that visualizing the swim environment was key for her to reduce stress. As her guide and I described to her the entry and exit points and the wind and waves conditions, she could form a picture in her mind that helped reduce the level of anxiety about what she was about to do. The exercise was beneficial to all the swimmers at the clinic, but to her in particular.

So when you arrive at the swim location, whether its racing or training, orient yourself to the environment and take stock of the W.E.T conditions:

W: Wind, waves, water, wildlife

Note wind direction, strength and whether that will impact your breathing pattern or sighting. Observe the wave conditions and how you may have to enter from a beach or deal with swells on the course. Look at the water – is it clear or murky, warm or cold. Wildlife is a common phobia: be assured that the sound and sight of swimmers splashing through the water will scare away most critters. E: Entry, exit, emergency

Look at the entry and exit points: off a dock or ramp, sloping beach, muddy bank. Consider how this will effect your footing. Where can you seek refuge in case of emergency: does the course keep you close to the beach, can you reach a shoreline or island, are there safety kayaks? Are you practiced in treading water or flipping on your back if you run into distress. Overall, be prepared!

T: Training

Be confident in your training and your ability to complete the distance. Ignore the war stories from other athletes. Remember and execute your plan: see next step.

Have a plan

A second key step is to always show up to an open water swim event with a personal plan and be assertive in its execution.

Much of the anxiety about open water swimming is not knowing what you are going to do and being influenced by those around you who have different abilities and experience. Your plan could be to hang back from the crowd, take it easy and learn from the race. Or it could be to race hard to the first buoy and lead the group out of the swim. Whatever it is, make the plan yours and do not be persuaded to deviate from it on race morning. A personal plan will instill confidence and serve as a deflector shield from the BS that you hear on the start lines of a typical triathlon.

Warm up

An issue impacting many triathletes is the sudden loss of breath after about a minute into the swim. They have rapidly gone from a resting position on the beach to a high-powered swim. This is an enormous shock to the system and a great cause of anxiety and stress, both physical and mental. Apart from going out slow from the start, the best way to avoid this problem is to do a decent warm-up routine to ramp up your heart rate and get your body moving beforehand. Ideally as close to race time as possible, this will get your body prepared for race conditions. A suitable routine includes:

  • A quick swim on the race course, if permitted

  • Alternatively a 5-10 minute jog if the ground conditions and layout of the transition are suitable, followed by 20 push-ups, 30 squats. Add burpees or crunches if you like.

  • Skipping is another way to raise the heart rate, bring a rope and skip for a few minutes before going to the start.

  • Stretch and mobilize the major swimming muscle groups with arm rotations, shoulder rolls, shrugs, trunk rotations, neck rolls and hamstring stretches.

By taking these three simple steps in preparation, you can be assured of a safe and enjoyable open water swim experience.

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