Open Water Swimming Anxiety Part 1

February 28, 2018

As a part time mental trainer, one of the most common concerns I meet with triathletes about is open water swimming anxiety.  Most commonly, beginner triathletes have the most concerns before their first race, but for some, the anxiety related to open water swimming never goes away.  It is important to distinguish between pre race anxiety and anxiety purely related to having to swim in open water.  Athletes that are truly struggling with open water swimming anxiety have symptoms of anxiety during the swim portion of the triathlon.   I’ve included some tips below that can help prepare you for some of the potential stressors unique to open water swimming that you may face on race day. 






  1. If it is your first triathlon, practice swimming open water at least three times before your first triathlon. 

    • If you plan on racing in a wetsuit remember to practice in your wetsuit.  One of the most common symptoms of anxiety is increased respiration rate that can result in hyperventilation or a panic attack in the water.  The feeling of a tight wetsuit around your neck, rips, back and shoulders can exacerbate the feeling of not being able to breathe.  I would also recommend practicing swimming in the outfit you plan on racing in.  Some of the key things you should practice in your open water swimming session:

i.Swimming in a straight line


iii.Buoy turns

iv.Entries and exits. 

v.Swimming in a group

  • If you can’t swim open water, use a pool to practice your open water swim skills. 

  1. Include open water swim practice as a staple in your training program. 

    • Don’t just practice open water swimming leading into a race; make it a part of your program.  Check and see if any local triathlon clubs or masters swim teams offer consistent open water swim training.

    • If the seasons prevent you from swimming open water year round, practice open water swimming skills in a pool.  The more proficient you become at these skills, the more relaxed and prepared you’ll be on race day. 

  2. Participate in open water swim races. 

    • As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, there is always going to be a certain amount of pre race anxiety, arousal, and adrenaline associated with racing.  Open water swim races will help you prepare you specifically for the swim portion of the triathlon without the distraction of worrying about an entire triathlon. 

  3. Try to practice in the same type of open water that you’ll be racing in. 

    • If you know you’re going to be racing in notoriously wavy water or the ocean or a small lake, try to practice in something similar before race day.  

  4. Have a “safe space” that you can go to at any time in an open water swim.

    • The position that I like to suggest is essentially a back float.  Swim slightly off course to avoid being swum on top of. At this point you can choose to signal a lifeguard on course.  Next turn over on your back, scull and kick in place and take some deep breaths.  If you are unable to gain control of your breath, wave to one of the lifeguards so that you can get assistance immediately.   This suggested “safe space” would not be effective in extremely wavy conditions because a wave could come across your face. Be sure to consider a safe space that will work for you in the conditions that you’re racing in. 

  5. Avoid anxiety causing situations

    • If being swum on top of or pushed under the water is of great concern to you, start your race on the outside of the start line away from the volume. Also, if you know you are a slower swimmer, start towards the back. 

  6. Practice breath control.

    • As mentioned above, hyperventilation is common when anxiety runs high and sometimes this turns into a panic attack.  To prevent this while swimming, it is important to remember to breathe out as much as you breathe in.  When your face is in the water, be sure to continuously blow bubbles and take consistent, even breaths.

  7. Wear good goggles

    • Wear a good pair of goggles that provide premium visibility, I recommend Roka R1’s.   Consider the timing location of the race and how it will affect your visibility (i.e. how much light will there be? Where will the sun be in relation to your swim course?) Pro tip: clean your goggles with baby shampoo, not only will it keep them clean they will also prevent your goggles from fogging.  Put a drop of baby shampoo in each lens, use the soft pad of your finger to massage the shampoo all over the lens. Rinse under warm water to remove all shampoo residue. 

  8. Know the swim course

    • Nothing is worse than feeling disoriented or feeling unsure you’re going the right way.  Be sure to study course maps, recon the swim course if possible, and determine large landmarks outside of the swim buoys that will help you stay on course. 


Finally, as an important side note; never swim in open water alone.  In my next article I will discuss pre race anxiety and how to keep your anxiety and arousal levels in check before race start. 



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