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Avoid Swimming Anxiety In Your Next Race

A four-part prescription, based on Total Immersion techniques, to experience a safer, happier swim in your first (or next) race.

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A four-part prescription, based on Total Immersion techniques, to experience a safer, happier swim in your first (or next) race.

Written by: Terry Laughlin

After two competitors died from heart attacks during the swim leg of the New York City Triathlon last weekend, the statistically-odd nature of how such deaths happen was bound to grab attention. Is triathlon racing dangerous? No. Your chances of becoming a statistic are vanishingly small. But the likely reason so many fatalities occur while swimming—anxiety verging on panic—is a very common experience.

According to the American College of Cardiology, the risk of sudden death in a triathlon is about twice that of a marathon—1.5 deaths per 100,000 triathlon participants compared with 0.8 deaths per 100,000 marathon participants. Of 14 deaths that occurred in triathlons between 2006 and 2008, 13 took place during the swim. Why is it that over 90 percent of fatalities occur during a leg that accounts for only 10 percent of race?

I’ve heard countless stories, even from experienced pool swimmers, of feeling utterly overwhelmed by the confusion and congestion during the start of a triathlon. David Davies, a British swimmer who won the silver medal in the 10K open water race in Beijing, described feeling “violated by people swimming all over me.” If an Olympic medalist feels that uncomfortable—while swimming amongst people whose expertise at pack swimming rivals that of Tour de France riders in the peloton—the chances are high that a triathlete (especially a newer one) could feel utterly vulnerable in a chaotic swim start.

It’s this very common scenario that I aim to address. It’s clear that many athletes have a far more urgent need to learn how to be comfortable than how to increase speed or fitness—at least in swimming.

Here is my four-part prescription to experience a safer, happier swim in your first (or next) race:

1. Learn Balance. This is the primary skill that gives you a sense of having
control over your body in the water. When you learn you can control that sinking-legs sensation, you become receptive to the idea of learning to control other things. In the Total Immersion Self-Coach Workshop DVD, Balance is the foundation for every subsequent skill. In an open-water race it banishes fear of drowning.

The author practicing the outlined techniques.

2. Practice Mindful Swimming (which you must practice to learn balance). This is the primary skill that develops the ability to exert control over what and how you think in an environment where you may not be able to control much else. When teaching open water camps I always tell our students this is the most important thing they’ll learn from us—to create what I call a “cocoon of calm” in the midst of exterior turmoil.

3. Practice (and Race) with a Tempo Trainer. When a swimmer feels vulnerable, the “fight-or-flight” response prompts a shift into high-rate survival strokes, which greatly increases respiration rate. Faster, shallower breaths can make an athlete feel light-headed, which makes an intimidating situation worse. Use the Tempo Trainer to program a controlled tempo in your nervous system prior to the race, then continue to use it during the race to control your respiration rate. Set the Tempo Trainer at 1.30 sec/stroke or slower.

4. Avoid the Rush. At the start, give the field 30 seconds after the starting signal before you begin swimming, and/or start at the perimeter of the pack. TI Coach Dave Cameron of Minneapolis says, “I always remind my triathletes to remember the pythagorean theorem. On a 200-yard swim segment, if you start 30 feet outside the most direct path to the first buoy, you’ll only swimming about 1.5 feet extra to get there.”

But what if anxiety still happens?

Ironman swims provide the most chaotic starts. Photo: Larry Rosa

It’s not the end of the world if you still feel your heart, breathing and stroke rates getting away from you mid-swim. TI Coach Brian Vande Krol of Denver is coaching a new triathlete who can only swim a few pool lengths but has her first race next weekend. Brian asked what her goal is for the swim leg. She said that her goal is not to panic. Brian replied that it’s highly likely she will feel panicky at some point. Rather, her goal should be to recover well from any anxiety attack. He advised her to “go to Sweet Spot [a relaxing position intended to provide ‘a pool wall’ in open water]. Spend a few breaths contemplating life and how great it is to be living it in such a vibrant manner. Take a few more breaths while visualizing how you want your swim to feel, and then get back to it in a calm, easy manner.” Brian adds,  “The ability to hit the reset button is a key for turning a bad experience into a good one.”

Brian suggests breathing through anxiety. So does Mike Daley a TI Coach in Chicago. Many of his clients are from Wisconsin where there have been three tri-swim fatalities in the last three years. “I teach all my swimmers to use yoga breathing as their standard vehicle for resting at pool’s end while practicing mindful swimming. It’s been proven effective for calming nerves, lowering heart rates, and centering before swimming in open water. When they feel their heart rate elevate or need to organize their thinking and find calm during a swim, they roll to Sweet Spot and take a few yoga breaths. When they feel calm and centered, they roll face down again and begin stroking calmly.”

Terry Laughlin is head coach of Total Immersion Swimming and the 2011 US Masters 60-64 National Champion in the 5K Open Water Swim. Read his blog at

– Three Essential Open-Water Survival Tips
– Triathlete’s Guide: Unexpected Open-Water Swim Scenarios
– A Method To The Madness: Three Swim Workouts For Perfect Race Starts
– The World’s Best Open-Water Swim Locations