Overcoming Open Water Swim Panic

author : Neil Edge
comments : 2

Strategies to make sure your triathlon swim anxiety doesn't ruin your race

Panicking in open water is a major challenge for many triathletes around the world.

Not only is this a challenge during the race but it also prevents athletes from enjoying the lead-up to the race, due to worry. Have you ever experienced the following feelings?



  • Feeling nervous in the weeks before, knowing that panic in open water will happen

  • In many cases, a decision to DNS (did not start) that you made the night before or on the day itself

  • You remembered your last race, where you swam from kayak to kayak, holding on each time

  • That feeling of not being able to breathe as you roll over onto your back in a state of panic

  • Thoughts of giving up and either you continued or stopped, meaning a DNF (did not finish)

  • Frustration and embarrassment that this happened again


As an experienced triathlon mental performance coach, I hear this from athletes on a weekly basis, who contact me about my program to prevent this from happening.


The good news is this can absolutely be prevented from happening.


By preventing this, you will ensure that you enjoy the build-up to race day, race morning and the swim itself. There are many strategies that people post on social media that ‘apparently’ work, such as simply continuing to face your fear.

The reality is that in most cases, this simply triggers your fight or flight response, which causes you to panic each time. There is a longer process called systematic desensitization but this (again in most cases), does not work to prevent panic in open water.


Before we jump onto the process to prevent this, I will clear-up a confusion that many athletes make between a panic and an anxiety attack.


Whilst many of the symptoms are similar, the solutions are very different. Quite simply, a panic attack is defined by a challenge around one specific element such as in open water and many who experience panic attacks, do not as a rule feel overly anxious in other aspects of their life.

Those who experience anxiety attacks most often experience anxiety in other aspects of their life also and there are many forms (Social anxiety of which performance anxiety is classed as, health anxiety, general anxiety disorder, phobias and others.

The key to removing (yes anxiety can be completely removed from your life) anxiety is to first of all identify its roots. You are welcome to contact me to discuss a program to achieve this (my email address is noted at the end of the article).


FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real


Step 1

Before we can prevent panic from happening, we need to add clarity and so identifying what is causing us to feel this way (feelings and emotions are triggered by thoughts). On a sheet of paper, draw a line down the center of the page.

On the left-hand side, take 5-10 minutes to write down exactly what is causing you to think and feel this way. Examples include fear of deep water, fear of fish touching your leg, fear of not knowing what is swimming underneath you, fear of not being able to complete the distance and similar.

Write as many as are relevant to you and it is important to write everything. If you feel that creating a sense of uneasiness by thinking about that, take 10-15 minutes out to regain your composure. Now we also know that our thoughts are simply our opinions and NOT facts. Your brain will try to convince you that they are indeed facts, but we know from conclusive research that they are not in most cases.

What that explains is that in most cases, our fight or flight is triggered without any form of validation. In most cases, as in a small number of cases, our fight or flight response triggers with justifiable reasons. Would you jump into a river to swim where there are alligators? Or walk through a dangerous neighborhood at night on your own?

The answer is of course no and so in this case, the response in justified but in over 90% of cases, it triggers without reason.


Step 2

On that basis, look at each point and ask yourself the question: is my fear justified. Some examples. Fear of swimming in deep water on race day In many cases you will be wearing a wetsuit. Given that a wetsuit is a flotation device, have you ever tried to swim along the bottom of a swimming pool or lake in a wetsuit? It's almost impossible.

The conclusion here is that even if you stop swimming in a wetsuit and lay on your back, you will float and so are totally safe swimming on race day in deep water. Fear of fish touching you As a fellow triathlete and one that has jumped into the water in mass starts, I can confidently say that with 1000+ wetsuit clad athletes jumping into the water seconds apart, no fish in their right mind will be anywhere nearby.

Even if one or two are not compos mentis, you can swim confidently knowing that they are totally harmless and so will not harm you at all. Race organizers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of athletes and must follow stringent procedures to ensure this. That includes ensuring that there is no dangerous wildlife in the vicinity. Please follow a similar process for each of your fears.

So as not to make this article too long, I will write part 2 of this process in the next article. I have taken over 80 fellow triathletes through a short four-session process to completely prevent panic from happening during your swim on race day.

Please feel free to contact me via email at [email protected] for details. For those who prefer to learn online, I have also created a condensed 1-hour video PowerPoint presentation of this on my website.

You can access via the following link; www.neiledge.com/course-2/

You are also welcome to join my private Facebook group with 1000+ athletes, where I provide weekly triathlon mindset tips. www.facebook.com/groups/triathlonmindset

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date: November 18, 2022

Neil Edge

I'm an experienced triathlon mental performance coach, working with all levels of athletes, from first-time athletes to experienced age groupers and pros.

Personally, I have just switched to marathon swimming as a new challenge, after training and competing in triathlon.

avatarNeil Edge

I'm an experienced triathlon mental performance coach, working with all levels of athletes, from first-time athletes to experienced age groupers and pros.

Personally, I have just switched to marathon swimming as a new challenge, after training and competing in triathlon.

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