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14 Tips for Managing Open Water Swim Anxiety in Triathlons

By YWCA Women’s Triathlon
May 7, 2017
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While there are plenty of triathletes who look forward to the swim in triathlons, we know there are plenty more, especially newbies, for whom the swim is a source of concern. We have helped many of those “nervous newbies” successfully make their way through the swim. Some have even come to enjoy it!

Using Proper Gear

For any sport, getting the bare minimum equipment can make an enormous difference.

Gear For Open Water Swim:

  • Good pair of goggles for comfort and better vision
  • Swim cap for warmth (and you have to wear one in most triathlons anyway)
  • Sport-style suit that stays in place

We recommend our Official Bike Partner, Gear West Bike & Tri, for any of these items.

Goggle Recommendations

Some goggle options to think through include a few different colors for shady or sunny days, anti-fog, minimal coverage or a big, wide lens. Try out a few different ones to see which you like best if you’re just starting out. It’s always good to have a spare pair, especially for a race, because straps can break or lenses can start to fog.

Do I Need a Wetsuit?

Many new triathletes are curious about wetsuits. It is certainly an option but is also a financial investment. One of the most key reasons to use a wetsuit is for the buoyancy, speed and warmth they provide. Make sure any wetsuit you are wearing or considering is triathlon specific. Thickness and functionality is very different for tri wetsuits than it is for any other wetsuits.

It is important to learn how to properly put on wetsuits and care for them. If you are not sure you want to buy a wetsuit but want to try it out, Gear West Bike & Tri also rents them by the week. There are many wetsuit options, so your best bet is to talk to the experts there.

Tips for Managing Open Water/Triathlon Swim Anxiety

Anxiety can be the largest battle when it comes to Open Water Swimming. Check out the following tips and look for your golden nugget(s) of calm and focus.

  1. Practice in open water. As much as you can. It will get more comfortable. Make it a gradual progression, e.g. shallow where you can stand, comfort strokes, short distances, etc. Build up to longer swims.
  2. Practice with a buddy. Always a good idea. Consider meeting up for some of the public open water swims or take a clinic together. If you are planning on one of our open water swim clinics, the earlier in the summer, the better. That gives you more time to practice new skills.
  3. Use a “comfort” stroke that is easy and calming for you. This is breaststroke for many. Plan to use it regularly or as needed. Totally ok.
  4. Wetsuit. If you are really anxious, you may want to consider a wetsuit for the buoyancy: knowing you can just bob around with all that rubber if needed can be quite calming and even banish your anxiety! Make sure it fits properly and you learn how to put it on. It will often feel a little snug on land but feels better when it fills with water. Pull it up snug, ahem, in the crotch to be sure it doesn’t end up pulling down on your shoulders (or you might inhibit breathing and ruin all the anxiety-reducing goodness).
  5. Practice breathing drills in pool, e.g. bobbing with rate and intensity variation, breathing ladders. Breath control helps if you happen to miss a breath or swallow water due to waves or bumping into other swimmers.
  6. Figure out and practice the sighting technique that works best for you. This will be the technique that has the least amount of wasted energy, and maintains breathing rhythm and body position.
  7. Swimming mantra. Use a song, find a calming word or focus on a particular technique to help get you through.
  8. Embrace communal swimming. Bumping into each other isn’t on purpose by you or them. Try imagining they are sharing their energy with you and swim on.
  9. Learn to scope the swim before the race, check out the slope and footing of the entry and exit, the angle and direction of the sun, waves, and sighting landmarks for the start AND finish.
  10. Get used to the water before the race starts, e.g. warm up swim/drills. Prepare for the water the same way every time you practice so your warmup is second nature and calming.
  11. Start wide (away from others). Stay wide while others crush in toward the buoy line. In particular, swim corners wide. You won’t add much distance, and corner buoys are often nervous traffic jams while swimmers try to get a sight on the next buoy.
  12. Pause or walk in. When you get the “go” signal, you don’t need to charge the water with a massive adrenaline burst. You can pause for a couple seconds while others charge the water. And you can walk in, no need to run. Don’t walk too far though. It takes a lot of energy to wade through the water.
  13. Legal to hang on. You are allowed to hang on noodles, kayaks or buoys as long as you don’t use them to make forward progress. If you are struggling, get off to the side and take a break. The YWCA Women’s Tri has “Noodle Swimmers” for this exact purpose.
  14. Stick to your swim and race plan. Don’t worry about what others are doing. It is your race.