Rookie In Training: Open-Water Swimming Anxiety

Triathlon rookie Jason Devaney writes about a common struggle among new triathletes: open-water swim anxiety.

Photo: Nils Nilsen

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Every Wednesday in “Rookie in Training,” beginner triathlete Jason Devaney will share training advice he learns as he trains for his first half Ironman.

The race started out OK.

Sure I was nervous, but I felt strong as the 1,000-meter swim got under way at the triathlon I did on Sunday. But then, about 150 meters in, I started getting water in my throat as my fellow triathletes kicked and splashed their way toward the first turn buoy.

And then I sorta freaked out.

The water temperature was 80 degrees so wetsuits were not allowed, which added to my anxiety. After all, I had been practicing open-water swimming IN MY WETSUIT. Having to wear just tri shorts and a tri top was not what I expected.

So as I’m coughing, trying to get the gross lake water out of my throat so I could continue swimming, I flipped over onto my back to calm myself down. It helped. But a few hundred meters later, another mild panic attack came over me so I again rotated onto my back.

Two things were going through my head: Where the heck is the swim finish, and why am I doing this?

Of course, my mind was messing with me. I actually enjoy swimming very much—preferably in a pool, but open-water isn’t so bad. It just takes some getting used to.

RELATED – Video: Open-Water Swimming Tips For Beginners

And the frustrating thing about this particular swim was that physically I felt great. Swimming thousands of yards in Masters swim practice every week has been paying off because I wasn’t tired at all.

It’s just my head that’s the problem.

For most people, the swim is the most challenging leg of triathlon. Plopping yourself into an open body of water with hundreds of other people, and then swimming with them, elbow to elbow, is not natural.

From above, a pack of open-water swimmers during a triathlon looks like an amoeba, gracefully moving forward and always changing shape. But when you’re in the middle of it, it feels like a feeding frenzy.

It can certainly be frightening. Wearing a wetsuit helps because it keeps you afloat.

There’s a wealth of information on our website about dealing with open-water swimming anxiety, including this article that offers some great tips.

“Mimic the chaos of open water by swimming with a large group in the pool,” writes Sara McLarty. “Share a lane with other swimmers where you’ll be forced to make contact, and swim side-by-side to become more comfortable.”

That’s a great point, and it’s something I plan to start doing. It wasn’t so much the swim that caused my issues over the weekend, but rather it was the close proximity to other swimmers, and the effects of that.

Controlling your breaths is another good way to combat anxiety during a race. If you start to panic, flip over onto your back and take some slow, deep breaths. When you resume swimming, try breathing every two strokes instead of every three. You’ll be forced to work a bit harder to sight, but getting more regular breaths will help keep you calm.

And if you miss a breath when someone inadvertently splashes water in your mouth, just put your face back in the water, take one or two more strokes, and then breathe.

Another technique is to start swimming breaststroke, as Virginia Masters Swimming points out. I know someone who did an Ironman last year and because the water in the lake was so rough, she swam breaststroke almost the entire time.

There’s a lot of help out there, so if you’re battling some open-water swim anxiety, you’ll find what you need. The best piece of advice, however, is to get out there and swim. The more we practice in open water, the better and more comfortable we’ll be.

Jason Devaney is a freelance contributor to, and A resident of Virginia, he spends way too much of his free time training. When he’s working, he’s typically dressed in either sweatpants or a cycling kit. Follow him on Twitter @jason_devaney1.

Is Open-Water Swim Training Necessary?
Six Tips For Exiting The Open-Water Swim
Open-Water Swimming Tips
Fearful Of The Open Water? Try Hypnotism
Dealing With Unexpected Open-Water Swim Scenarios
Avoid Swimming Anxiety In Your Next Race

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