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Open Water Swim Panic: A Step by Step Guide

Many triathletes experience panic attacks when swimming in open water, in both training sessions and on race-day. Many also confuse panic attacks with anxiety attacks. Whilst the symptoms appear similar in many cases, the solution in parts is different.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are short bursts of intense fear, often marked by increased heart rate, shortness of breath and a feeling of tiredness. This is what people experience in open water, triggered by fear during a race swim start. They can also come on suddenly and without warning. Typically lasting less than 30 minutes, they mostly occur once but occasionally can return with a lesser intensity during that period of time.

Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks on the other hand, are defined as excessive, persisting worry over an imminent event such as death or illness, or even minor events such as being late for an appointment or other uncertain outcomes.

Symptoms are often like those of a panic attack and appear gradually over minutes, hours, and days. Those experiencing anxiety attacks most often experience the symptoms in other aspects of their lives also. The solution, therefore, requires a different approach as it is not specific to a certain situation.

What is Happening During this Experience?

A small part of our brain, called the amygdala, is responsible for processing emotions and memories associated with fear. Think of it as a radar that is constantly searching for what it believes are dangerous situations.

When it detects a perceived threat, it activates the fight or flight response, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to create changes in the body to mobilize the energy needed to either run or fight. When the fight or flight response is activated, it overrides the prefrontal cortex which is involved in many processes, such as decision-making, reasoning and others.

Or in this case, to swim out of the way of the perceived threat (e.g., deep, murky water, sea creatures, thrashing athletes, etc.).

Symptoms include, an increased heart rate, feeling faint, dizzy, or light-headed, shaking and feeling like you can’t breathe.

How do we Prevent Open Water Swim Panic?

The fight or flight response is mostly activated without a valid reason (think nightmares as an example). For example, you will be swimming in a wetsuit which makes you even more buoyant and are unlikely to drown and/or the fish that touch your leg won’t hurt you.

For many athletes, their panic attack happens suddenly and without reason.

Here are some steps to help you overcome your fears.

Step 1 – Clarity

Take 15 minutes out of your day when you won’t be disturbed.

Take a notepad-pen and draw a line down the centre of the page.

On the left-hand side, write a list of exactly what concerns you about the swim. That may be the depth of the water, strong current pulling you along, choppy water and similar. Write as much detail as you can.

Be aware that this may begin to make you feel uneasy, especially if your next race is around the corner.

If you notice feeling of unease creep in, take 30 minutes to focus on something else to calm down and then come back to this document.

Step 2 – Validation

Next, we need to identify that what we are responding to is genuine fear.

We do this by way of thought validation.

Ask yourself the questions that relate to the fears you have already outlined on the left side of your paper. For example, is there a possibility that I may drown because I can’t touch the bottom? Will the fish harm me?

Step 3 – Understanding the Reality

Now write the reality on the right-hand side.

  • I am safe swimming in deep water.
  • I am safe when fish touch my leg.
  • I feel confident swimming in open water.
  • I am confident swimming with other athletes around me.

Write those affirmations that are relevant to you.

Now fold your page down the centre line and rip it in half, so that only the affirmations exist. The left-hand column was your past and is no longer part of your future.

Step 4 – Add Positive Affirmations to Your Morning Routine

We now need to firmly fix those new affirmations into our subconscious mind for this to become our reality.

There have been numerous research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of stating affirmations. Choose three that you noted above to use as part of your morning routine.

Say each one either aloud or in your mind for three to five minutes. To ensure even more effectiveness, state each affirmation within the first three to five minutes of waking.

Step 5 – Meditation

Next, meditate for 10-20 minutes each day.

Meditation is a form of mindfulness, and the closer race day gets, focusing on the present moment, rather than allowing our mind to think about the race, will help considerably.

Did you know that we experience over 60,000 thoughts every day, and due to our negativity bias, a large percentage of those thoughts are negative? Therefore, the key during taper week is to be as mindful as possible. We can only control the present, hence why meditation during taper week is so important.

Meditate as part of your morning routine and throughout the day.

Tips on Staying Calm During Taper Week

Race specific Facebook groups are notoriously full of posts from people worrying about elements out of their control, such as water temperature, weather conditions and similar. I recommend not looking at those groups during taper week or even two to three weeks before.

Avoid friends that are anxious about the race. Our fight or flight response is constantly monitoring and will pick up on those anxieties.

Prepare a day earlier than you normally would. There is nothing worse than panicking close to race-day when you can’t find your nutrition and similar.

Check your bike and then leave the transition and expo. Emotions are running high the day before a race. You will have time to enjoy the expo after your race.

Race Day Morning

Meditation is key that morning.

Once you are in transition and have zipped up your wetsuit, free up some extra space around your neck. Ask a friend to take hold of the base of the zip and pull the wetsuit up as high as possible. This extra room will give you the sense of better air flow.

Our fight or flight response triggers a heart rate spike as you begin to swim. Warm up before you enter the water for 10 minutes and as hard as you can. This will ensure that your heart rate is high when you begin the swim so the effect of that heart rate spike will be minimal.

The above process will also help calm your nerves.

Taken and adapted from an article by Neil Edge from AG Website.

Stuart has competed in triathlons from Sprint to Ironman distance. As a qualified Triathlon Australia, Australian Athletics Run Coach, and a certified Ironman coach, he is aware of the importance of balancing training with lifestyle, thus complementing other important aspects of an athlete’s life (family, work, study commitments, etc.).

Contact Stuart at



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