It can happen to anyone. You feel like you can’t swim. You feel like you can’t breathe. You feel like you might die. 10 minutes later, sat on the edge of the lake, you feel like an idiot. You shouldn’t. It can happen to anyone.

While the swim is the shortest section in triathlon it is often the part that causes people most problems. In this short blog we’ll look at what causes open water race panics, what we can do to deal with them and how we can prevent them happening.

3 Things to Remember…

  • It happens to ALL abilities. Don’t relate this problem to your swim ability. I’ve seen more experienced than beginner swimmers have this issue this year!
  • It doesn’t mean your race is over. With the correct strategy and coping methods you may only lose a few minutes. Don’t write off your race. (They are expensive these days!)
  • The more you practice and prepare for this, the less it will happen.
Common Causes…

  • Setting off too fast. Almost ANY pace feels easy for 100-200m when swimming. We’ve all been there, doing a 400m swim TT, it can feel so easy for the first half, then BOOM, you suddenly realise you were going too fast. Drop yourself in the middle of a busy excited swim start and its very easy to set off at an unsustainable pace and not realise.
  • Not acclimatised or exhaling fully. No doubt about it, colder water sets more panics off. Making sure you have got used to the temperature before starting will ensure you are able to exhale fully into the water.
  • Lack of confidence or race nerves. Again, this goes back to needing to be fully relaxed with your breathing, and ensuring you exhale fully.
  • Wetsuit comfort. Some wetsuits have a very high neck line, this can cause swimmers to feel restricted with breathing and set off panic.
  • Choking. Surprisingly probably the least common cause…!
Coping Strategies…

  • Spot the signs early.
  • Slow down your pace (sometimes this can be enough to prevent it).
  • Focus on fully exhaling. 
  • Switch to Breaststroke if needed
  • Stop if needed. Remember that in your wetsuit you can float on your back with zero effort, so lay back and relax. It’s worth knowing that the rules state you can hang on to a kayak or lake edge so long as you don’t make forward progress. So don’t assume if a kayak comes to help you they have to take you out of the lake. Take your time.
  • Ensure you are fully relaxed and settled before setting off again or before picking up the pace if you didn’t stop. Take your time.
  • Don’t write off your race. Sometimes these ordeals feel like a lifetime, when in reality they are a matter of seconds or minutes. Keep a positive mind for the rest of the event, it is easy to make up the time on the bike/run. Stay positive.
Training Methods to Prevent Panics…

  • 100m pool reps with 1st length hard. Get used to that feeling of getting short of breath and practice adjusting pace and swimming through it.
  • Bunch pool sprints. Get comfortable swimming in a group to calm nerves. We swim 2 rows of 3 in a standard pool lane in our squad. (see photo below)
  • Breathing drills. Practice breathing every 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 until you can do a length of each comfortably. Try swimming relaxed lengths on 1 or zero breaths. Get comfortable in these situations.
  • Include ‘Sink Downs’ in your open water warm up. Put your face into the water and practice fully exhaling  until you start to sink down, that is when you know you are fully exhaling. If you are comfortable doing this you should be fine once you start to swim.
  • Practice floating. I see so many experienced swimmers forget that in open water they can take a break and rest with zero effort. On your open water training occasionally practice laying on your back in your wetsuit at zero effort. Remember this is possible next time you panic.
  • Practice varied pace swims in open water. This will get you comfortable being short on breath and recovering while keeping moving.
The above tips should help you reduce your open water panics and teach you how to cope with them should they arise!

Remember… The more you practice and prepare for this, the less it will happen.