Performance Anxiety?


This type of performance will not be helped with a little blue pill that’s for sure.  What I am talking about is the swim start of a triathlon.  We all know it is called a white wash, a swim scrum, pure craziness and lots of other items.  Well it’s all true but there are ways that you can prepare yourself for it.

You could have friends beat you with noodles while swimming in the pool.  You could toss yourself into a washing machine.  Heck you could have a shark chase you round and round but those all sound like a lot of work to me.

It was this type of conversation I was having with a participant in Marathon Makeover when the idea of how I could help her hit me.  I invited her to our newest open water training sessions that Greg (Twitter: @tri2live) and I are going to be doing each Thursday.  Show her how to not be afraid of the water.  How you can learn to swim in the open water without having all of that anxiety attached to it.  So much can be learned by actually swimming in the open water that cannot be taught through words alone.

On that path I received an email today from ESPN that was perfect.  The title of the article is:  Seven Ways To Get Over Open Water Anxiety.  Well that made it easy for me didn’t it?  Well I figured I would share those ways with you as well in case you were facing your first open water triathlon this year or you are a veteran like Hillary Biscay (who is quoted in the article.)

Here is the article with my thoughts in red:


Seven ways to get over open water anxiety

By Selene Yeager

Getting kicked in the face. Having a panic attack. Umm … drowning?! If the thought of freestyling through open, unlined, even murky water with 800 other athletes makes you queasy, rest assured: You’re not alone. Heck, even the pros get nervous. Just ask Ironman champion Hillary Biscay, who recently blogged about her “yearly panic attack.”

“Two minutes into the swim, I found myself treading water, undoing my wetsuit, trying to get my breathing under control … I spent the rest of the swim catching up,” said Biscay, whose bouts of open water anxiety began with a bad mass swim start in a freezing lake in l’Alpe d’Huez in 2006. The good news is that bad starts, bad experiences and bad fears all can be overcome, said marathon swimmer Erica Sheckler. As head swim coach for Endurance Multisport, she helps swimphobics (like Biscay) overcome their anxieties. “About 90 percent of my nervous newcomers end up loving the swim,” she said. More than just offering reassuring words, Sheckler has a game plan for conquering your H2O-phobia:

Warm up. You always start pool sessions with kicking drills and warm up sets to elevate your heart rate, warm your muscles, and get a feel for the water. Doing the same before an open water swim will prepare your body and calm your nerves.

I did exactly this prior to my first olympic distance race last October and it was perfect.  It was perfect because my first open water swim went exactly as most people expect it to.  Getting kicked, punched, hit, panic attack….all of the above.  I did not let it stop me but I was fearful of what was to come at the Olympic distance.  The warm-up was perfect as my body was ready to swim.

Think efficient, not fast. “Often athletes will focus so much on going fast they don’t realize how much effort they’re wasting. Wasted energy means higher heart rate and higher likelihood for panic,” said Sheckler. “Focus on your swim form and being smooth and controlled. You’ll swim better … and calmer.”

I have said this one million times and will continue to say it. Swimming is about form and not about turning your arms faster.  You will get nowhere that way, but with the proper form comes speed.  It has proven to be true time and time again and if I could give anybody one piece of advice about swimming it is just that.  Swim with better form and you will be faster.

Breathe. High nerves lead to shallow breaths, which lead to panicky sensations. Take deep breaths before you get in the water and continue during the swim, blowing out and emptying your lungs each time, so you can draw a deep breath when you turn for air. And if you end up with a giant mouthful of water because of a wave or swimmer’s wake, relax. Do a breaststroke or two to catch your breath and keep going.

I have a technique that I use.  I blow out my nose as I turn to breathe.  I take in as much air as possible and breathe out with my face in the water and then as I turn I breathe out again using my nose.  I helps keep me in tune with my body. It provides me a rythym and I know when I don’t do it I get thrown off.  Find a rhythym for yourself and practice it over and over.


Establish Plan P. Panic happens. Have a plan so you’re prepared to handle it. Rule number one: ease up on the pace, said Biscay. “If you feel panic coming on, just slow down. It calms your breathing and allows you to continue.”

My plan P involved the catch-up drill and the finger tip drag drill combined.  This automatically slows me down and allows me to catch my breathe and eleviate any sense of panic.  It has taken me some time to get to that point and it didn’t happen over night but with more and more practice I am now able to control myself better.

Pick your position. Stay out of the swim start scrum by positioning yourself to the side or back of the pack. Really nervous? Stay in place and let the pack thin before starting out. Then enjoy swimming in the draft.

This one I am not so sure about other than just hang back.  I started on the left hand side of a beach start and got trampled.  I have been involved in a drop in off a dock start and while you don’t have tons of people on top of you there will be times when you hit arms and legs and when arms and legs hit you.  It happens and you need to be prepared for it.  I started 70.3 IMCA right at the front and had no issues with being run over.  I think it is just a matter of the race and it’s participants.

Watch your wetsuit. Wetsuits make you more buoyant, but can feel claustrophobic on land (and raise anxiety). Pull the suit high on your body, so it’s not pressing on your neck, shoulders, and chest. “Add lubricant like Sportslick around the neck, so it moves freely,” Sheckler said.

I will say I have never heard of this one before but it makes total sense.  Without that added pressure you are capable of breathing more freely.  I use tri-slide and spray that everywhere but will remember this tip the next time I feel a panic attack coming on before I am in the water.

Easy on the Starbucks. Java is a performance enhancer … until you overdo it. “Limiting my caffeine helps me avoid the onset of panicky feelings,” said Biscay. Skip anything with the word “Grande,” “Venti” or, heaven forbid, “Trenta” attached to it.

This goes without say in my world.  Never mind the nerve rattling, but what about the porto-potty rattling that could happen.  Enough said about this one.

And because life has a way of being so kind to you sometimes I came across an article by Susan Lacke (Twitter:  @susanlacke –> follow her as she is a great source of motivation and inspiration) on the No Meat Athlete site titled How to Survice Your First Open Water Swim: 8 Tips for the New Triathlete’

Susan attacks her topics with a great sense of humor and this article is no different but it is very helpful for not only those first time triathletes but for those of us who have been through the white was a few times as well.

Here are Susan’s 8 tips, and if you are interested in reading more then please do yourself a favor and click on the link above and read the entire article.  It will help you out.


1) There is no such thing as a lake zombie.

2) There are, however, other creatures in the water. Deal with it.

3) Get the right gear.

4) Have a strategy.

5) Keep calm.

When you’re surrounded by other swimmers, especially during the mass start, you’ll feel like you’re in a washing machine with 700 ninjas. (Had to leave this here because of the Ninja factor.)

6) Breathe & blow.

7) Watch where you’re going.

8 ) Make a smooth exit.


What are your tips and tricks for the open water swim?  How do you train for an open water swim?

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  1. The swim is my worst discipline and the swim start for my IM scares the hell out of me. But, I know that if I do a lot of open water swimming this summer, some (but not all) of that anxiety will go away. Thanks for sharing the had some good tips!
    Aimee (I Tri To Be Me) recently posted..A week in review and Giveaway Winner!My Profile

  2. katie says:

    all these open water swim/anxiety posts have come along in perfect timing for me, so thanks. :) i’ll be remembering them next weekend – eeks!
    katie recently posted..Earth Day 5K- race reportMy Profile

  3. Kovas says:

    If you haven’t seen it yet, Clif Bar made a funny video about practicing for the swim start.

    Kovas recently posted..The Happiness of PursuitMy Profile

  4. Scott says:

    I am a strong swimmer, yet I still panic at times in the OWS. I also practice “in case of emergency” strokes, like breast stroke and back stroke, for the sole purpose that I can still move forward in case of a panic attack.

    Here are the notes I took at a OWN clinic a couple years ago
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  5. funny, I dont have OWS anxiety. I have pool anxiety.
    I guess it is because my swimming background is in the ocean or in the lakes. I surf, I waterski, I jetski…put me in a pool and those lines, lane dividers, walls–those things screw me up! lol

    great tips and a useful post Jason!

    can I come swim with you and Greg?? please??!
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  6. Jeff Irvin says:

    She forgot the most important tip: Go practice in the Open Water. This makes a huge difference.

    I usually start at the front of the pack at swim waves just so I do not get caught behind the person with the OW anxiety (-: — usually just do a quick 100m sprint to get away from the pack and then spend the next few 100m letting the HR settle down!
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  7. Erica says:

    Jeff, you’re right!

    Practicing in the open water is one of the best ways to get over fear. However, not everyone has immediate access to a body of water they can freely practice in. Plus, depending on time of year and location, it can be hard to find water warm enough to practice in—colder water comes with its own set of anxiety-inducing issues.

    If access to open water is limited, I highly recommend finding a pool that will allow your group to hold Pool Open Water sessions. Every Monday during our club swim, we remove all the lane lines from the pool, add buoys, and try to forget the walls and lines exist. Never underestimate how choppy a pool can get! We practice starts, drafting, passing, navigating… it’s all a lot of fun. Plus, it’s helped some beginners make a great transition from pool to the open water. We just had two beginners do a lake swim (57 degrees!) this past weekend, remarking how well they handled the surface chop and flailing arms because they could draw on their experiences from the POW sessions.

    As for starting position, it can definitely vary depending on the participants. If you have the ability to sprint off the front, good for you! Most beginners, however, find that only adds to the anxiety due to the increased HR that comes with the sprint effort. Instead of settling in, they’ll panic, then get clobbered from behind from the group. If you start on the side, I recommend the side that is NOT in line with the buoys.. there will be more open water and you can find a comfort level before moving over to join the masses. Starting position can always depend on the course, the level of competition, and the experience/ability of the individual swimmer.

    Best of luck to all of you in the season ahead!
    Erica Sheckler
    Head Swim Coach | Endurance Multisport

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