General Discussion Triathlon Talk » staying calm in open water Rss Feed  
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2016-10-18 5:24 PM


Subject: staying calm in open water
Hi, I'd love some tips for staying calm in an ocean swim. I'm doing my first olympic distance and swimming is my biggest fear. I know I've done the work and I know I can swim the distance but a couple of times I've got in the water and have really struggled to control panic - panic about depth, rips, you name it....and then it all falls apart....badly. So, any advice for overcoming panic mid race or tips to distract would be fantastic. Thank you!!

2016-10-18 6:22 PM
in reply to: marnie64

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the desert
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water

don't overthink it and be confident in your swimming abilities.

2016-10-18 6:45 PM
in reply to: marnie64

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Eugene, Oregon
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
Probably 90% of my tris are ocean swims. It does take getting used to, even if you are a strong swimmer. If at all possible, try to get in some ocean swims before race day, if you can do so safely. As a bare minimum, many tris have practice swims the day before where you might be able to get out. That way at least you can work on getting comfortable with the water without adding race day adrenaline to the mix. Make sure you are comfortable with your swimming to the point where you can swim 1.5 to 2 times the race distance in a pool or lakr--that does a lot for confidence. The thing with oceans is that conditions change quite a bit day to day, and even hour to hour (if tide is coming in or out, or wind is changing). So the conditions you see or experience a few days before the race may not be those at race time. i sometimes feel panicked if I arrive at a venue in the afternoon or evening and the surf looks very rough, but in most places, conditions tend to be calmer early AM, which is when most races start. In the event that conditions are truly dangerous (like strong rip tides), many directors will modify or even cancel the swim, but you do need to be prepared for less than ideal conditions, or to make the call for yourself if your swimming ability is just not up to it. There's no shame in that--I'm generally one of the top swimmers in my age group, but I have opted out of two swims (one an ocean swim) due to a combo of very rough, cold water, bad weather, and what I felt was an inadequate safety set-up for the conditions. On both cases the RD had given athletes an option to switch to a duathlon, which was what I did.

As for the actual race, make sure to do a warmup in the ocean, so you get used to conditions. Every ocean and every day is a bit different. I have swum where there is zero visibility and almost black water, and perfectly clear turquoise with fishies swimming way down below. Both take some getting used to. I would line up toward the outside or back at the start so as to minimize contact with other swimmers--that way you can start at your own pace, which lowers the chance of panicking. Focus on steady breathing and getting through the course buoy by buoy. Whatl looked overwhelming when viewed from shore becomes muchmore doable if you break it into manageable pieces!

2016-10-18 9:56 PM
in reply to: marnie64

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Ventura, California
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water

At the beginning of this year I was having some issues with panic in the ocean. It honestly just takes time. Before my ocean sprint race this year I spent 3 days with a retired life guard and we did swim sessions twice a day. This helped tremendously as this was his beach. He made sure that I knew we where being watched from a watch tower, and the fact this was his beach and he knew it and swimmed it for 30 years! 

We immediately where going straight out to a buoy 500 yards out and back for a 1000 yard swim, then we would do laps around the Jr. Lifeguard buoy that was 200yrds out, hell if little kids could do it I better be able to do it, lol.

While this was a unique opportunity it was a life saver. Before this I forced myself out into rough waters with other swimmers and while I would panic and hyperventilate, I forced myself to keep going back out. It sucked, one time I honestly thought I was going to have to get rescued as I exhausted myself, hyperventilated and started into a panic attack and that forced me to relax and recollect myself and get myself out of the water.

Amazing thing is, when I was a kid, I used to swim in the open ocean with the surfers for hours at a time every summer all summer for years! Then I stopped going and at the ripe old age of 45 I basically had to start all over again. There is no magical advice, you just have to get into the ocean and swim. Talk to the local life guards and ask them for advice and to watch over you. Just knowing you have someone watching your back will make you feel safer. Oh ya, focus on your breath, like yoga in a way, just focus on the inhale/exhale. Also a recent swimmer said he was scared of the murky water and not being able to see anything. Next time your in the pool practicing, close you eyes and only open them when you come up for inhale instead of looking at the bottom of the pool. Will also help build a sense of direction without depending on the black line.

A note about rip currents, they will only pull you out about 150-200 yards. They are not going to pull you all the way out to sea never to be seen again. Just swim to the side to get out of them. 

Get in the ocean and swim, time in the water, just like time in the saddle makes you a better rider.

Best wishes.


2016-10-19 3:40 AM
in reply to: rjcalhoun

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Western Australia
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
I find that the colder water in the ocean tends to be my problem as it has a tendency to take your breath away when you first get in. Because of this I always, always make sure i get in the water and get my head and face wet well before the race. Spend a good amount of time in the water before your race starts, get your head under and splash about and float on your back and the like until you start to feel yourself relax and then start your swim warm up if you have time and need to.

To me one of the greatest pleasures on the planet is relaxing while floating in the ocean staring at the sky, watching the clouds. It always makes me aware of how wonderful our planet is.
2016-10-19 3:08 PM
in reply to: marnie64

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Extreme Veteran
Greenwood, South Carolina
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
Practice swim in the ocean if possible leading up to race.

A good warm up in the ocean before the race can help calm the nerves.

Don't start out too fast. Start relaxed and focus on using good form. Don't worry about everyone else breaking out into fast start.

Put some positive thoughts in your head. I usually think about how nice the sunrise is or what a great day this is going to be for a race. Get rid of negative thoughts.

2016-10-19 3:35 PM
in reply to: marnie64

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Kailua, Hawaii
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
it can be frightening...this is what I do...

1. realize struggling costs energy. relax if stressed. concentrate on breathing, and calmness.
2. stop kicking...if I feel people crawling up the back, relax and let them re-orientate or slowly move away.
3. be proactive about congestion. think ahead, going into a turn buoy will always be congestion. by swimming further out , you can avoid the pack.
4. protect your face and hands. if you are getting kicked, shield your face, watch your fingers. I've been frog kicked in the face, fingers bent, scraped by watches, fingernails, googles pulled off, etc. thing can be ugly, and the best is to avoid, and be passively defensive.
5. do your best to do not aggravate others. swim straight, watch where you are going, and be courteous. not always easy tasks, but it can prevent worse problems.

if you have a problem, such as your googles are pulled off or are punched, etc...relax, gather your senses, fix the goggles. be calm. watch your breathing.. a lot of it is a mental game.
2016-10-20 12:17 PM
in reply to: marnie64

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Placitas, New Mexico
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water

It all starts in the mind. 

If you approach the swim with fear, dread, and anxiety, what do you think will describe your swim?  Fearful, dreadful, and anxious. 

If you approach the swim with calm, what do think will describe the actual swim?  Calming. 

This tends to be true regardless of swim conditions because your mind convinces the rest of your body to make reality match the mental image. 

Practice getting your mind in the right place (and it may take weeks and months). 
When you drive to the swim venue (race or practice) imagine a "perfect" swim with calm blue waters, sunshine, and a gentle breeze.  Imagine yourself gliding effortlessly through the water with long, smooth, graceful strokes.  Keep this image in your mind, and then alter conditions slightly while retaining the image of yourself gliding through the water.  A grey sky?  You are still as calm and relaxed as if conditions were perfect.  A few whitecaps, same thing, you're gliding through the chop with grace because you're strong enough to swim even in slightly choppy water.  You look forward to the swells pushing you along.  Cold water?  Same thing.  It takes a minute or two of being in the cold chop before the water inside your wetsuit has warmed, but you are still in your "happy place" just like perfect conditions.  Continue this positive imagery for the weeks leading up to the race and you'll build a strong mental image just like you build strong muscles. 

Rip currents can be dangerous, but don't fight them.  Calmly swim at an angle to them and you'll soon be out of them even if they've pulled you a few yards further from dry land. 

Shark thoughts may play havoc with your mind, but the actual sharks shouldn't be a problem during the race.  You might experience jellyfish (they often look like cellophane) or seaweed which can be disconcerting.  We'd swim in a lake around here and the bluegills would come up and nip at my nipples (I'm a guy) if I stopped out by the submerged tree where we turned around.  Disconcerting when you aren't expecting it, but kinda funny now. 

You do have an obligation to be safe in the water.  If you get to the race and conditions are far worse than you have trained, DO NOT RELY ON LIFEGUARDS.  They're watching between 50-100 people at any time and may not see you when you most need them.  (I'm a former lifeguard and swim instructor.  I don't willingly risk my life like that.


2016-10-21 10:41 AM
in reply to: #5202342

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Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
Best tips I've received to help overcome panic....

Get in the water! This made a huge difference for me. I put in a decent amount of open water swimming at one point and my struggles went away.

Swim in cold water! It sucks, but cold water often makes it worse so practice in a worst case environment.

Get in the water as early as possible and be sure to get your head under. The water temp at my first tri was in the low 60's or high 50's and the RD sat on the beach with his microphone and arms crossed and refused to start until everyone had put their heads under. My next tri was a mont later, slightly warmer water temps, but dunking your head wasn't a requirement and I ended up holding on to a jet ski b/c I panicked.

Remember that the first 200-500m sucks for pretty much everyone. Just keep swimming, focus on what you can control and eventually you will get into a rhythm without even realizing it.
2016-10-25 1:00 PM
in reply to: marnie64

Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
Just take every possible opportunity to swim in strange conditions. Lap swimming in your home pool gets you too accustomed to normal/familiar. Go swim in a competition pool that's crazy cold. Go swim in a lake when it's raining. Swim in a river upstream. In my tri group, we'll do swims in the dark, or everyone in the same lane with the fastest people starting off behind the slower people. Swim with a big drag device attached to your waist.

Every time you get over something that is a bit unusual, the next unusual thing will be that much less of a mental obstacle.

2016-10-25 10:19 PM
in reply to: 0

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, Ormoc City
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
You might come across a similar situation I encountered wherein I almost drowned so I'm sharing this.

Back in May 2008, I joined a group of newly trained rescue swimmers in their 2-mile 'survival' swimming. We were dropped in the middle of the ocean at about 5 AM and were to swim towards the beach using reference points we personally chose since it was still dark. I chose a lighted mast of a radio station as reference since it was very visible 2 miles away.

After about 45 minutes of swimming (was using breast stroke), it was bright already so I can see what's in front of me in the water, and I noticed that I swam into a large group of tiny jelly fish (I guess it was the spawning season) and before I knew it, they were all around me that there was no way to get out of it without being stung. Moments later, the jellyfish started clinging to my body and to my face (yes even partially covering my goggles) and the pain was intense that my initial reaction was to pull the little jellyfish from my face and from my body. However, the more I pulled them off, the pain becomes more excruciating that I began to sink since I was not swimming anymore. I was alone in that part of the ocean since the swimmer following me was more than 100 meters behind and the swimmer ahead of me is also the same distance away. The more I sank and the more stings I got, the more panicked I become. It was after a few more moments and about 5 meters below the surface, maybe when I was almost drowning, that I realized that if I do not put my act together and do not help myself, I will certainly die - so I decided to endure the pain, leave the jellyfish clinging, and swim upwards.

What happened next was unprecedented for the jellyfish clinging to me started to detach by themselves and I was getting lesser and lesser stings all over. When I was able to gasp for air, I decided to do the same thing - leave the jellyfish my themselves, endure the pain and continue swimming - and I reached shore about 30 minutes later. My face and my body were full of welts, and I got fever that night, but I survived.

What I learned the hard way was:
1. Never pull a clinging jellyfish off your skin. I will just cause its tentacles to 'fire' more stings at you;
2. Jellyfish clinging on to you will come off naturally if you continue swimming forward. Bubbling may help un-cling jellyfish off your face;
3. Never panic and continue swimming. Unless they are box type jellyfish, you will survive after being stung several times but you will certainly die if you drown;
4. A rash guard or an anti-jellyfish cream will be very helpful especially during their spawning season.

Have a safe and jellyfish free swim.

Edited by Nightbird95 2016-10-25 10:21 PM

2016-10-26 1:43 AM
in reply to: Nightbird95

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Eugene, Oregon
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
Ugh.....I feel fortunate I had been stung before something similar happened to me while warming up for IM Vietnam 70.3 this year. I also swam into a swarm of baby jellies and ended up with multiple stings on my face, arms, and legs. I think if that had been my first encounter with them, I may well have panicked. Luckily I had had a less nasty encounter a few years before (just one or two stings) and was able to not panic, get out of the water, get some basic treatment, and then get back in and (ugh) get stung again on the way back in. I also ended up somewhat ill for the next few days, but was able to finish the race with a strong effort. The more you swim, the more chances you have to experience stuff like this (another ugly one was getting tangled in water weeds) and figure out how to cope with it without adding race day adrenaline to the mix.
2016-10-26 5:17 AM
in reply to: Hot Runner

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, Ormoc City
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
Originally posted by Hot Runner

Ugh..... ... The more you swim, the more chances you have to experience stuff like this (another ugly one was getting tangled in water weeds) and figure out how to cope with it without adding race day adrenaline to the mix.

Any tips on 'surviving' water weeds?
2016-10-26 7:02 AM
in reply to: Nightbird95

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Eugene, Oregon
Subject: RE: staying calm in open water
Except not panic, nope. Wearing a wetsuit at the time so it wasn't like I was going to drown; it was just a matter of extrication. Kind of a slimy mess, but not as bad as the time I got stuck in a fishing net swimming at the beach in Vietnam. (Actually, in both cases, I was laughing so hard at the stupidity of the situation that I could barely extricate myself. Fisherman was not amused, despite my attempt to say in pidgin Vietnamese, "You caught a really big fish!")

The jellyfish were not funny, especially the second time around (as I was riding the surf break in to shore, which is nerve-wracking in itself). I could see really losing it if I'd swum into them in the dark way out at sea and had never been stung before. My friend and I actually had really good races, though, despite getting multiple stings (maybe the pain and itching distracted us from the effort of the race?), so we've joked ever since about "jellyfish doping".
2016-10-26 9:33 AM
in reply to: Hot Runner

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Subject: RE: staying calm in open water

Just know that it's ok to flip over and kick on your back any time that you need to.  Or sit up and tread water.  No shame in calming down if the anxiety is building.

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