What to do about swim panic in open water

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At Tri Swim Coach, our whole approach to coaching both physiologically and psychologically is to have you laugh at the water; we want you not only to start loving to swim instead of seeing it as the part of the race that you “just want to survive” (how many times have you heard or said that?!), but we also want you to overcome those mental barriers and fears of the water.

However, most of our articles and podcasts focus on how to prevent and deal with anxiety before the gun goes off but what happens when panic seizes you during a race?

Unless you are doing a time trial start for a race, the first half of a swim is like a washing machine set to super spin: elbows are flying, hands are going every which way, and people are swimming on top, below, and all around you. It is enough to freak out anyone, let alone non-experienced swimmers.

So it can be hard to calm down and get back into a rhythm after such an experience (duh!). So if this happens to you, here is what we recommend doing:

  1. Let everyone go ahead: If you are in the mele, then get out of it and let everyone else clear out before getting back in the swim. Once the water clears (which shouldn’t be long at all), stop, flip over, float and…
  2. Take deep breaths: It might be simple but the easiest and fastest way to calm down is to stop hyperventilating and focus on the breath. Try a four breath in, four breath out pace. After you have gotten a hold of your breath…
  3. Start backstroke: Before trying to get back into the race, do a few strokes on your back to warm the muscles up again and get back into a rhythm. This might take some time but it is alright as long as you keep moving forward. You can also tread water until you are ready.
  4. Keep going: Once you are ready to keep on moving and the water is fairly clear, resume swimming. To keep the anxiety down, keep your stroke smooth and relaxed while focusing on the present moment and what is going on around you. To keep the engagement in the present moment, it is alright to have a running dialogue of what you are doing like “I am putting my left arm into the water…I pull back with a high elbow…I breath…right arm…high elbow….strong pull…recovery, breath….”

As you continue to swim try to avoid crowds and take a wider course around buoys. It might add on time but a few more minutes is better than a DNF at this point.

If you have experienced this before and have some helpful tips to share, let us know via Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #laughatthewater

And if you haven’t yet seen our Triathlon Swimming Essentials video, click here to watch!