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Overcoming Panic in Open Water Swimming: Tips and Strategies

Are you a confident swimmer but still panic in open water, seemingly without any rational reason?

You are not alone!

Open water swimming is thrilling, relaxing, and wonderful, yet it can also be a challenge for both our body and mind.

There are times as a swimmer when your mind starts to wander. You might be thinking about what’s beneath or around you, or you may be startled by an unexpected structure or person. Perhaps you’ve recently heard a story of someone who had a bad experience while open water swimming, and it’s fresh in your mind.

You might have experienced something similar.

I certainly did when I raced at the World Championship Team Relays this year in Hamburg:

The swim route went underneath two tunnels, and it completely floored me! I didn’t expect the darkness both in and out of the water, and I absolutely panicked. To make matters worse, the dive entry knocked my goggles off, and they wouldn’t reseal for the rest of the swim.

Suddenly, I couldn’t find my rhythm. I had to resort to breaststroke and almost signaled to be pulled out!

A total shocker…

And it seemed like such an irrational fear.

We all deal with these unexpected events differently. I bumbled through it, knowing that bailing wasn’t an option at that moment, but I ended up with a terrible swim time and felt I had let my team down.

So, how can you deal with these situations?

There are a few tricks that, as coaches, we can share:

1. Do a Swimming Reconnaissance

Open water swim

If you know you have an event coming up and there are particular obstacles or structures that might throw you, try to get out in the water beforehand and practice. Feel what it’s like to swim in, around, or within those elements and get used to them. Regularly swimming in open water does a lot to dispel any irrational fears you might have.

2. Practice Breathing

Swimming breathing practice

This might sound a bit strange since we all know how to breathe, and it comes naturally. However, there are meditation breathing patterns that can help calm our nerves and center ourselves. Try BOX breathing:

How to Do Box Breathing:

  • Step 1: Breathe in slowly, counting to four. Feel the air enter your lungs.

  • Step 2: Hold your breath for four seconds. Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling during this time.

  • Step 3: Slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds.

  • Step 4: Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel re-centered.

When practicing box breathing, it's helpful to:

  • Sit in a chair, stand, or lie down on your back with one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.

  • Breathe as you normally would for a minute.

  • Observe the rise and fall of your chest and stomach. If your chest is rising but your stomach is not, you are shallow breathing. If your stomach is rising, you are deep breathing, activating full relaxation in your body.

Benefits of Box Breathing:

  • Helps cope with panic and stress by shifting focus away from the panic-inducing situation.

  • Controls hyperventilation by instructing your lungs to breathe rhythmically.

  • Keeps you calm while preparing for your event.

3. Practice Acclimation for Cold Water

open water swim acclimatisaion

If the water is cold, try to get in before the race or event. Splash your face and immerse it in the water for 2 minutes, 5-6 times before getting in fully. This halves the cold water shock syndrome and mentally adapts you to the cooler water. It suddenly doesn’t feel as cold as it did initially.

4. Find Some Buddies

open water swimming with friends

Swimming with others can significantly enhance your experience. Gather some mates for your open water swimming sessions, set up a buddy system to look after each other, and explore some beautiful places together.

By incorporating these strategies, you can manage your fears and enjoy the wonderful experience of open water swimming. Happy swimming!

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