Chris Greene Lake Swim

Overcoming Open Water Jitters

With open water season fast approaching, now is the time to confront the possibility of panic attacks during a swim. Even people who feel they have mastered their nervousness can succumb to a panic attack in that first OW swim of the season, particularly if the water is fairly chilly.

Coach Jay Peluso of Peluso Open Water Masters (POWM) has written a nice article about the value and practice of acclimation in reducing the anxiety associated with OW swims.

And for those of you who have never done an OW swim but are interested, the Chris Greene Lake cable swims provide an excellent introduction to OW swimming.

Open Water Swim Anxiety

by Jay Peluso

Have you ever looked directly out of the passenger window of the car while driving on the highway? The trees are zipping by and you feel like you are moving so fast. Yet when you look out the windshield you lose that sense of speed. Swimming in the open water has that same effect. In the pool we have nice little tiles or lane line markings that give us a sense of speed. Once we get into the open water we lose those little markers and with it our sense of speed. This results in a much faster stroke rate as we try to get that feeling back. The end result is a turnover that is too high for our fitness and pushes us into an anaerobic state too quickly. Couple that with a constricting wetsuit and all of sudden you feel like you can’t get enough oxygen. Congratulations, you are on your way to a panic attack. This is why open water swimming panic attacks are not limited to those who are just getting into the sport as you can read in this November 14th Washington Post article.

But if panic attacks can happen to beginners and veterans alike, how can we avoid them? The answer is acclimation.

With the hours we put into swimming, biking and running, ask yourself how many times you practice in open water swim race conditions; thrashing arms, bumping legs, dark water, wetsuits…. If you are like most, then the answer is very few. Swimming in a Masters practice for thousands of meters may get your aerobic conditioning up to an appropriate level to swim the distance but cannot prepare you for the open water swim leg of a triathlon. Specific drills such as swimming three abreast, draft swimming (leaving :02 apart), and kick board swims (team uses kickboards to create turbulence while you swim) can help, but there is no substitute for getting in the open water.

Open Water Swimming v. Open Water Training

Just getting into the open water is a great step in acclimating to the difference between pool and no-pool but open water swim training is something entirely different. Just like you have your long run and long ride every week you don’t just ride long every time out. Your long open water swim is important but getting used to race conditions is important too. There is no better training ground than an open water swim race. Races are a great place to get a feel for the rigors of the swim leg without having to worry about bringing all of your gear and saving something for the bike and the run.

When training, train with a group. Intentionally swim as a pack. Get used to having people close to you, bumping you, getting in your way, and water getting in your mouth. Rounding buoys can be one of the most dangerous places in a swim leg, practice it – in a group. Find out which method works the best for your style of swimming. If you’re not comfortable in there, take a wider route. Although you may swim a slightly longer distance, you will be less stressed and won’t use nearly the energy you would fighting through the turn.

The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown. Practice these situations and they will no longer be unknown to you. You will learn how to handle them thus avoiding panic attacks. But, what if you still have an issue. That brings us to the next point.

Handling a Panic Attack

Despite our best efforts, sometimes it just happens. Knowing how to handle a panic attack, therefore, is as important as avoiding them all together and in some sense will actually help you avoid them. Knowing you have an answer to the problem will ease your anxiety about having the problem, which often is the root cause of the problem itself.
There are typical solutions many of you have read before like rolling on your back and taking deep breaths, swimming breaststroke, even grabbing onto a kayak (which is legal as long as the kayak does not provide forward movement). These are all great techniques that we recommend. But in the washing machine atmosphere of a swim start, these aren’t always possible, and sometimes can cause other problems. So what other skills can you employ?

Breath Control and Spatial Awareness

My triathletes often ask why they should learn how to do flip turns if they are only going to swim in the open water – throwing back at me my taunts about there being no walls in the open water to rest on. The answer is breath control and spatial awareness. Learning how to control your breathing and being spatially aware under water are key components to handling difficult open water swim situations. Getting a wave of water or a splash from a competitors kick just as you take a breath can be disconcerting to say the least. If you are used to not always getting a breath when you want one, handling these situations becomes much easier.

That said, sometimes the easy escape route is down. If you roll over on your back or start to breaststroke, that may or may not stop the person behind you from swimming over the top of you. Instead of struggling to the surface, getting underneath the fray and out of the pack can sometimes be the best answer. Being able to control your breathing even while tired and knowing how to move underwater can help eliminate the fear factor that perpetuates panic attacks. Flip turns require these specific skills. During a particularly difficult, anaerobic set you will find that you are forced to control your breathing while executing your turns. Flipping head over heals and landing with your feet on the wall in a streamline position prepared for a strong push-off requires spatial awareness. These skills can be learned and perfected giving you a confidence in the water that makes panic attacks a thing of the past.

For more information on open water training and learning flip turns contact us at


5 Responses to “Overcoming Open Water Jitters”

  1. Couple of things that I’d like to add:
    – If you’re swimming in a race with wetsuiters, don’t expect them to recognize the danger to you that they present: while they’ll come bobbing back to the surface after someone’s crawled all over their backs and thighs, you won’t (unless you kick, which will provoke an angry reply from a wetsuiter who doesn’t know that you need to kick in order to keep your legs from sinking.)

    – Having been hit in the head at the end of an exhalation, and inhaling enough water in order not to be able to breathe, don’t expect to be able to raise your hand for a rescue boat. I’ve been swimming open water since 1984, and this happened a couple of years ago – first time. The only reason I’m alive today is that I finally just let the water go down. There was no air to expel the water.

    – Some people are sensitive to cold water, even with wetsuits on. Make sure you don’t have a pharyngeal/laryngeal reflex to cold water – and this is not a panic attack, it is a reflex. With practice, it can be overcome. Some people, however, get cold-induced asthma. Make sure, as Jay says, to practice under the conditions that you are going to swim. I’ve assisted several swimmers who were having reflex reactions to cold water – (and one of the techniques we used was to help the swimmer flip over on their back to keep the cold away from the throat.)

    – Plan shorter swims (like laps around a kayak) especially in cold water, instead of doing an out-and-back which might be too long. Best distance in colder water is 175 meters or less (that’s the distance across the James River at Snowden, Virginia.)

    Posted by Jim McFarland | 03/25/2013, 8:53 am
  2. Great advice and insight from a very experienced open water swimmer. Thanks Jim.

    Posted by Jay Peluso | 03/25/2013, 8:59 am
  3. Jay, thanks for permission to post your article. Next time you write something like this you should submit it to Swimmer magazine for publication!

    Posted by vawebmaster | 03/25/2013, 9:42 am
  4. This is a great article Jay. I have shared this on our local Irongate Triathlon Club Facebook page. There are 40 of us from Lynchburg who will be competing in the inaugural Raleigh 70.3 in June. (I fortunately will just be swimming in a relay!) I hope that we will see some RTC club members there!
    I would add that I have cautioned our OW swimmers that earplugs are a good idea in the colder spring water as we begin training outdoors.

    Posted by Sarah Dunstan | 03/25/2013, 9:55 am

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