4 Steps for Overcoming Fear of the Open Water

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The majority of new triathletes see the open water swim as their biggest stumbling block. Here are four steps to help you have a better swim experience in your first (or next) triathlon.

By Coach John Murray

I really enjoy working with first time triathletes. They are excited about their decision to complete a race and I love being there as they cross the finish-line. Some First Timers will sign up for the race first and only then research how to prepare. I should know, I was one of them! 

In many cases, turning the average non-triathlete into a finisher can be like starting from scratch, but with some perseverance and motivation the dream soon becomes a reality. However, in my experience, the majority of new triathletes see the open water swim as their biggest stumbling block. There might be issues such as not knowing where to swim, having a fear of the open water, not having a good grasp on how to train for the swim, etc. But regardless of the obstacles swim training cannot just be ignored.

So based on my experience with triathlon swim training as it relates not only to beginners but also many experienced triathletes, here are four steps to help you have a better swim experience in your first (or next) triathlon. Following that, I have provided a couple of sample swim workouts to get you started. 

  1. Spend quality time in the pool. In my swim clinics, I make a point of asking how triathletes are spending their time in the pool. Invariably I get the response, “I just jump in and swim back and forth as long as I can.” Although I commend them for trying, I also encourage them to have a better plan. At this step, consider performing swim drills for part or most of your time in the pool. In swimming, technique trumps power and speed. For instance if you get breathless and anxious after just a short swim, it is almost certainly a technique issue instead of a fitness issue. In these cases, we would slow things down, address the comfort/technique issue and then move forward.

One of the teaching tools I use are swim fins. These relatively inexpensive pool aids can accelerate your adaptation as you learn to swim with your face in the water or develop the technique of breathing to each side. Eventually you will wean yourself from them, but at the beginning they are a source of confidence and propulsion. Another focus is on understanding some of the desired components of efficient freestyle: balance, alignment, arm propulsion, long axis rotation and kick. There are many swim drills to address each one of these areas. After you have spent time in the pool working on general swimming techniques let’s move to Step 2.

  1. Open water drills in the pool.  Eventually you will move to the open water to practice and there are some techniques you can start working on as the second step in the pool - primarily the need to see where you are going. Without the black line on the bottom and the lane lines on each side of you we can easily swim off course. I use several drills for sighting and/or adapting to sighting;

“Head Out” freestyle, “Alligator Eyes”, and just sighting every 3rd or 4th stroke.

Head Out is just like it sounds, but you want to make sure you are keeping your head as still as possible. Consider putting a chair at the end of your lane to sight while you are swimming. Alligator Eyes is freestyle with your eyes just above the surface and the Sighting Drill will be regular freestyle (your face is in the water) but every 3rd or 4th stroke you pick your head up to sight on that chair. On this drill we look forward first, looking right past your arm which is out and front and just starting to pull, then turn your head to the side to breathe. Another in-pool open water drill is “Swimming in a crowd”, which is not really a drill, but a helpful manner of adaptation to the triathlon swim start. I will put many swimmers in a lane and have them swim in that crowded environment for a while. You can also work on Dolphin Dives and drafting after you have mastered the others.

  1. Open Water Swim familiarity.  This next step may be a challenge for many but the return on your investment is big! You have built several weeks of swimming confidence in the pool…you feel ready for the next step!  Look for a group…or start your own for regular exposure to open water. Safety is the top concern here, so make sure you swim in an area that has a lifeguard and stay in shallow water at first. Set yourself up for success by eyeing a small goal…several short swims with rest breaks in between. You are just getting used to the things that are different from the pool. Maybe you can’t see the bottom, maybe there is current or waves, maybe now you are thinking about fish or how cold it is! Yes, it’s different but you will get used to that! Allow repeated trips over a few weeks to see your progress. Confidence and enjoyment will begin to manifest itself before long.
  1. Rehearse your race plan.  Lastly, I am a firm proponent of visualization. Whether we believe it or not, our sub-conscious mind is programmed for either a positive or negative start to our triathlon swim. I want you to ensure that you are programmed with good, positive and confident thoughts as your triathlon wave hears the gun and you make your way into the water. There are several areas I want you to have rehearsed before your race. We can start visualization in your open water swim practice. After you have several under your belt and you are developing comfort and rhythm, you can begin to put yourself in the race. Stay relaxed and steady, remember, we’re not trying to win the swim, we are just trying to get to our bike. Another area of visualization is rehearsing your race start. On an open water swim practice day spend some time imagining that “this is race day!” You are walking from transition to the start, there are crowds of people, everyone is excited and your wave is about to start, there is music playing and the announcer is doing the countdown…3…2…1…GO! and you enter the water and start your swim. Rehearse this several times. Start relaxed and at the tempo that keeps you comfortable throughout the swim. When it comes to race day you have already done this several times…and you were successful each time! 

With this four step process you can approach your triathlon swim with confidence knowing you are prepared.

Sample Beginner Swim Session #1:

1 x 100 Easy Warm-up

16 x 25 Side Glide w/ Fins (switch sides at the halfway point) Rest :10 seconds after each 25

16 x 25 6 + 3 Drill w/ fins - Rest :15

5 minutes Balance Work

4 x 50 swim Rest :20 after each swim (aka ‘rest interval’)

1 x 100 easy recovery

Total= 1200 yards

*Note- the first number refers to the repetitions and the second number to the distance in yards or meters. These are written for a 25 yard or meter pool.

Side Glide- What we refer to as “The fastest position in our freestyle swimming. Kicking on our side with your “bottom” arm extended out in front and your “top” arm resting on your side. Look at the bottom of the pool and turn your head (maintaining alignment) when you need to breathe. Focus on being hydrodynamic and creating the least amount of drag possible. This is done with a very light kick.

6 + 3- from the side glide position the swimmer will perform 6 kicks followed by 3 consecutive arm strokes and end up on the opposite side. Breathe when you need a breath. Focus on getting all the way on your side both during the kicking and during the 3 arm strokes.

Team MPI Swim Drill: 6+3 Drill

Balance- having good balance means the swimmer’s body is balanced on the top of the water. The head is partially submerged, eyes looking at the bottom. The upper back, butt and heels are just above the water line.

Stationary Balance Drill- Float at the top of the water without any forward movement. Arms are extended out in front. Make subtle adjustments of the core, head position, and legs to achieve and maintain that position.

Stationary Balance Drill with swim- same as above. Once balance is achieved, the swimmer takes 3 or 4 strokes then resumes balance with arms extended out in front. Repeat for length of the pool

Kick balance-in prone position with arms by your side, kick lightly down the pool. Breath is taken by lifting the head forward. This will disrupt the balance, but balance is re-established when head is back in position (looking at the bottom). Make sure to keep hands by your side during entire drill.

Kick balance on side- Same as above. Keep arms by side. Shoulders and hips are turned so that swimmer is on their side. Face is turned and eyes are looking at the bottom of the pool. Perform light kick for propulsion. When a breath is needed, turn head gently to the side. Attempt to keep body flat on the surface.

Team MPI Swim Drill: Balance Drill  

Sample Beginner Swim Session #2:

1 x 100 easy warm-up mix

6 x 50 drill/swim (Drill=fist drill) on :20 Rest Interval

3 x 100

#1- drill --3c,2c,1c, swim(w/fins) – This is a ‘pause’ drill.

#2- kick/swim/kick/swim (w/fins)

#3- steady-paced swim

16 x 25 swim on 1:00 (this is a ‘send-off’ interval (time includes both swimming time and rest time) The effort level for this should easy or easy/moderate

4 x 25 Open water sighting drill

1 x 100 easy recovery

Total = 1300 yards

FIST drill- This is whole stroke freestyle with the exception that your hand is balled up into a loose fist. The swimmer will rely more on their wrist and forearm during this drill

Team MPI Swim Drill: Fist Drill 

Pause Drills- Similar to whole stroke freestyle with the exception that we will pause in the Side Glide position. Sometimes time this will be written a “1c”(one count pause), “2c”(two count pause) or “3c”(three count pause).

Each count equals one second.

Sighting- The calm conditions of the pool help to make this drill a little easier. Swim regular whole stroke freestyle and practice lifting your eyes out of the water every other or every 3rd stroke cycle. A chair or other object at the end of the lane will give the swimmer a target to sight on. Sight forward first, then turn head to breathe.

Alligator eyes- A variant of the sighting drill, swim with eyes just above the surface of the water.

Coach John Murray is a USA Triathlon Level II Coach with 10+ years of Masters level swim coaching. John is also co-founder and owner of Team MPI (Multisport Performance Institute) that provides a diverse spectrum of services uniquely structured for both novice and experienced multisport athletes. For more information, check out www.TeamMPI.com


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date: March 12, 2014


MPI services include coaching, single & multi-day tri camps, clinics, swim video analysis, tri swim programs, bike fitting & more!


MPI services include coaching, single & multi-day tri camps, clinics, swim video analysis, tri swim programs, bike fitting & more!

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