These 11 skills will teach you the essentials. Master them in the pool first, then take them to the open water so that the swim leg of your next race will be remarkably better.

Photo: John Segesta

Fearless swimmers wish the swim were longer. They don’t suffer the typical open-water meltdown featuring disorientation, hyperventilation, dizziness and—the grand finale—backstroke. Nervous swimmers can become overwhelmed by the long list of fear factors they must overcome, but they don’t have to be.

Focus on the essentials: breathing, being able to deal with murky water and knowing how to keep your wits about you. The 11 skills below will teach you the essentials. Master them in the pool first, then take them to the open water so that the swim leg of your next race will be remarkably better.

Written by: Ingrid Loos Miller

Control Your Mind: Stay In The Circle

What-if scenarios are counterproductive when you want to stay in control. Melon Dash, author of Conquer Your Fear of Water, created the Miracle Swimming Program to help people overcome lifelong water phobias. In her book, she uses five circles to illustrate the progression from calm to panic.

Photo: John Segesta

When you are in control you are completely inside the circle, and you are “present.” In the context of swimming, this means you are aware of the sensations of the water and you are paying attention to where you place your hands with each stroke. You are in reality. If you start thinking about what will happen if you get too tired, your mind leaves the present and goes somewhere else, and the circle starts moving up. The more the circle moves away from its original position, the more scared you become. Because it can happen quickly, you feel the sensation of speed when you are losing control. By the time you are in full panic mode, your mind is only attached to the circle by a thin line and you literally don’t know what you are doing.

Dash teaches her students to head off anxiety by “staying in the circle.” That is, by focusing on immediate sensations, rather than bad things that might happen. This notion of staying present is a fundamental aspect of meditation, as well as an effective stress-management tool. In your mind’s eye, stop the progression of anxiety by focusing on the moment, repeating “I am OK” and pulling the circle down over your feet. Stay in the circle as you practice the open-water skills in this article.

Smart Breathing: Belly Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) can prevent motion sickness, hyperventilation and panic attacks. Done right, it will take you out of alarm mode and make it easier to keep your thoughts in the circle. You must breathe slowly, about 12 times per minute. Inhale through your nose, into your belly rather than your chest and think, “Anxiety. Just breathe slowly.”

Practice belly breathing in the car, at work and in the pool. The more you use it, the more confidence you will have in your ability to calm yourself.

Smart Breathing: Breathing Breaks

You’ve heard of taking walk breaks during long runs. How about taking breathing breaks during your open-water swims? You are used to pausing every 25 yards when you swim in the pool. It’s OK to pause in open water too.

Use planned breathing breaks as a race strategy. Take them early and often as a countermeasure to keep your heart rate down and diffuse anxiety, especially in the first five to 10 minutes of the swim. Just make sure you swim off to the side so you don’t obstruct others.

You can pause for a moment and sight, or you can pause long enough to get into belly breathing mode. Do what is necessary to stay in your circle. Don’t roll onto your back unless you take comfort in doing so. In time you will be able to shorten the pauses, then to eliminate them altogether.

Smart Breathing: Bilateral Breathing

Bilateral breathing is a fundamental open-water skill. Aside from helping you swim straight, it allows you to breathe opportunistically in rough water. Breathe more often when it is choppy so you are not air-starved when you get splashed in the face. Make your mouth a smaller target by pursing your lips like you are going to whistle and don’t be afraid to make some noise. Exhale forcefully through your nose like a whale.

If you find that you get lots of water in your mouth you are probably pulling your lead hand back too soon on the breathing stroke. Keep it extended forward an extra beat when you roll to take in air.

There is no magic way to learn bilateral breathing. You just have to do it. Get comfortable with it in the pool before using it in open water.

Swim Blind, Swim Straight

Swimming in murky water triggers the fight-or-flight alarm for two reasons: You can’t see and you are suffering cold shock.

Let’s deal with vision first. You rely heavily on sight to know where you are going and to gauge body position and speed. When you look into murky water, this input is snatched away and you get disoriented. You know this will happen on race day, so prepare for it. Teach yourself to swim without visual cues.

A swim tether will help you develop your ability to swim blind in the comfort of a heated pool. The tether will keep you from swimming into lane lines and other swimmers. Attach it around your waist and anchor it to a starting block or handrail. After a short warm-up, swim easily to get the feel of the tether, then close your eyes for a few strokes. Stay in your circle. It may be hard to keep your balance at first, but with practice you will adjust. Don’t proceed to the next step until you can comfortably swim for at least 30 strokes with your eyes closed.

Next, position yourself over a fixed object on the bottom while still tethered. Swim 20–30 moderate strokes with your eyes closed. Now open them: Are you still in the same place or did you veer off? Which way did you turn? Swimmers tend to pull harder on the side they favor for breathing. Bilateral breathing can help you swim straighter, so try it. If that isn’t enough, try pulling extra hard with your left hand (if you favor your right) every 10 strokes and see if that keeps you on your mark. Experiment and keep practicing so you can stay on your mark with your eyes closed for at least 30 strokes.

When you get into open water you will be dealing with cold water and limited visibility, so take it slow. Wear your goggles and start by looking underwater for a few seconds and staying in your mental circle. Then lift your head, take some belly breaths and when you feel calm, repeat. Slowly increase the amount of time you look underwater. When you feel entirely comfortable looking underwater, swim five strokes, then pause. Add strokes when you are comfortable. Return to a state of calm during each pause and try to stay there when you are swimming. Make this process part of your open-water warm-up.

Eventually you will be able to swim the race distance in comfort, but it will take several open-water sessions to get there. Be patient and don’t rush the process.

Manage The Dive Response

A unique way of adjusting to cold water. Photo: Nils Nilsen

When cold water touches the thermal receptors around your nose and eyes, it causes a reflex known as “cold shock” or the “dive response.” The colder the water, the greater the response. You gasp. Your heart rate slows by about 25 percent and blood vessels constrict in the extremities to keep oxygenated blood in your vital organs. Trying to swim in this state places enormous stress on your cardiovascular system, and you will feel very anxious. Don’t start to swim until you have worked through the initial shock. Always splash your face and neck before you put your whole face in. Stay inside your circle.

By planning ahead, you can also better prepare your body for cold shock by taking these steps: Submerge to the neck in water that’s 60 degrees or colder. Don’t wear a wetsuit. Stay in the water for three minutes (a cold shower does not work).

On race day, get in the water and swim for at least 10 minutes to warm up before your wave goes off. Swim long enough to get into your circle and find your swimming groove.

Sight Effectively

Lifting your head to sight makes your feet drop, which slows you down. Lifting your head quickly (aptly known as “heave” in nautical terms) can also make you seasick, so it is important to keep your head down as much as possible. To minimize heave, lift your eyes first and let your head follow. Let your eyes clear the water but not your mouth. Find your target, then turn your head to the side to breathe.

There are visual points of reference everywhere above the water and below, to the side and behind you: paddlers, kayaks, shoreline and other swimmers. Use them all.

When you must look forward, you need a target that you can find quickly. No matter how big and how orange the buoy is, it will be hard to find. A landmark works if there is one, but you need one for every change of direction on the course. The easiest thing to spot is the crowd of swimmers converging on the buoy. Let them do the sighting work. All you have to do is follow.

Love Your Wetsuit

It's important to have a proper-fitting wetsuit. Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

An inefficient swimmer in a poorly fitting wetsuit is a recipe for disaster. When a wetsuit vendor tells you the wetsuit will loosen up when you get into the water, don’t believe it. Even a properly fitted wetsuit feels more constrictive in the water than on land. Water pushes against the air in your lungs, and you feel this pressure even more when you are in a wetsuit. So before you start swimming, take a few moments to get comfortable with this feeling. It is normal and OK. Do some belly breathing and stay inside your circle mentally. Give yourself ample time. Don’t start swimming until you feel relaxed and calm.

On race day you will be breathing hard because of the excitement of the day, so practice some high-intensity sets in your wetsuit to get the feel of it. You don’t have to keep the wetsuit on for an entire workout. Wear it for your warm-up or some intervals and be careful to avoid overheating. Wear your wetsuit often, so that by race day you know every nuance of how it should feel.

Enjoy The Mayhem

Learning to embrace contact is important. Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

Mass starts are a physical challenge, but handling them well is more of a mental game. There is nothing you can do to change the behavior of others, so turn the negative into a positive by having fun with the rough-and-tumble. Yes, fun. Think of the crowd as a protective family group. Welcome every jab and kick as a reassuring pat on the back and let them energize you. Don’t be startled by body contact; expect it and roll with it, literally. Swimming with more body rotation makes it easier to slip between other swimmers and also it makes it harder for others to go directly over you. Be considerate of others and forgive their trespasses.

In practice, cram your buddies together (the more the merrier) and swim in a tight group. Then hit the gas and take turns moving through, around and over each other to the front. If you have the right attitude it will be easy to stay in your circle. Have a good time. Mob swimming is fun in practice. Let it be fun on race day too.

Finish Last

Not worrying about your time can help calm your mind.

Setting a time goal for your next triathlon swim is counterproductive. It is harder to stay calm when you are working hard. Slow down. Triathletes being the competitive beasts they are, this is not as easy as it sounds.

You know the platitudes about no one caring about your speed as much as you do. You are as anonymous as an ant out there in your goggles and cap, but still the pressure to perform looms large.

Nonetheless, you must face the reality that anxiety is something you must tackle in order to continue successfully in this sport. You can’t buy confidence—you have to build it one race at a time. That means you have to be brave enough to create and execute race goals that free rather than bind you. Try, “I will finish no faster than____,” and fill in the blank with a really slow time. How about finishing last in your age group? Fearless swimmers think the swim is fun. What goal would make the swim fun for you?

At your next race, do a good warm-up. When the gun fires, wait half a minute before you walk (don’t run) into the water. Take breathing breaks according to your race plan and stay in the circle. Swim with ease and enjoy yourself.

Remember A Few Safety Precautions

Don’t sign up for a triathlon before you know that you can manage the swim course. If you are afraid of being in the middle of a large lake, pick a race in a smaller one. If you can’t move competently through a surf line under most conditions, find a flat-water race. No matter what, the decision to get into the water on any given day must be your own. Don’t assume that the race director will keep you safe, or that his or her judgment is superior to yours. Be true to yourself and don’t go into the water if you feel the conditions or the race are beyond your personal abilities.

New and nervous swimmers face a formidable challenge in the sport of triathlon. Forgive yourself for past mistakes and be patient as you make new ones, and you will. Practice these skills one at a time in a safe, unhurried environment, and add challenge as you progress. Eventually you will see that the swim really can be the easiest, most comfortable part of your race day.

Ingrid Loos Miller is the author of Fearless Swimming for Triathletes and other Ironman series books. She is the founder of the Fearless Swimming Open Water Course for Triathletes and is a USAT Level 1 Coach in Irvine, Calif.