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Triathlon Swim Panic: Why are you afraid?

Posted by David Hardy
David Hardy
VTR Expert
User is currently offline
on Friday, September 28, 2012
in Uncategorized

Since View The Race launched earlier this year the most popular "google search"  I have seen is related to swim panic during a triathlon swim or overcoming swim anxiety. I wrote a post about this subject earlier this year and the use of a swim buoy in open water training. Now I knew that this would be a popular subject as everyone at one time or another is nervous about the swim portion of a triathlon. I even had a mini panic attack myself earlier this year. What I didn't know is how many people out there are really afraid or have a tremendous amount of anxiety about swimming in open water during a triathlon.


As I thought about this I asked myself..... What are people afraid of?    Sharks?  Jellyfish?  Is it fear of drowning? Fear of being bumped or hit in the water? Unfortunately, people have died during the swim portion of a triathlon. Usually the cause of death is related to a heart attack or some other underlying medical condition. As terrible as that is I don't think that is the reason people are afraid of the triathlon swim. I believe people are afraid of the triathlon swim for the same reason people are afraid of anything else. It's a mix of rational and irrational fear.  For example, why am I afraid of heights? Who knows....Below are the definitions of what is going on for someone that is experiencing swim panic.

What is fear?     

An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

What is panic? 

Sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior.

Taking these two definitions it's fair to say that what people with swim panic are experiencing in the water is uncontrollable fear of impending danger/pain/injury which can result in irrational behavior. For example, trying to take your wetsuit off during a race in the water. (yes, I have seen this)

My first reaction to this definition is..... Are you kidding me? People are that afraid of swimming in a triathlon? I would think if athletes train in open water and are confident in their swimming ability then they shouldn't be nervous or afraid of the swim portion of a race. Then I looked in the mirror....What about the things I am afraid of? Why can't I just get over them as I am suggesting is so easy to do? People have the same feelings of panic and fear felt during the triathlon swim about many different things. Here are the top ten things people are afraid of according to an article:

1) Spiders

2) Snakes

3) Heights

4) Crowded spaces

5) Dogs

6) Thunder and lightening

7) Needles

8) Social situations

9) Flying

10) Germs

Most everyone is afraid of something. How many of the above are you afraid of? (I have 2 out of 10) So I guess my point is that being afraid or anxious about the swim portion of a triathlon is not that crazy. The swim portion of a triathlon can be chaotic. In addition this chaos is happening when you are in water over your head, possibly far from shore swimming in a crowd with no means of immediate escape. I guess that would hit the panic button for a lot of us. This actually seems a lot more legitimate than being afraid to look over the edge of a building (fear of heights) or seeing a snake at the zoo (behind 4 inches of glass).

All kidding aside, I truly believe repetitive training in open water will relieve some swim anxiety. Also, being comfortable with your swimming ability will make you more confident. In other words don't enter a race with a mile swim if you are not sure you can swim a mile. Hopefully with training you can overcome your fear. It is possible that regardless of the amount of training, you may not be able to overcome your fear. Triathlons are supposed to be fun, right? If you are afraid of snakes you wouldn't keep trying to be a snake charmer and enter snake charming competitions...Why is the triathlon any different? Remember if all else fails there is a fall back plan.....duathlons.




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5 Tips for Open Water Triathlon Swim Training

Posted by David Hardy
David Hardy
VTR Expert
User is currently offline
on Thursday, June 14, 2012
in Training

Rescue Tube / Swim BuoyI wrote a blog post last month about overcoming swim anxiety in triathlons and my experience earlier this year at the Bassman Half Ironman where I had an anxiety attack in the water during the race. I mentioned in the post that the only way to get comfortable in open water is to get out of the pool and start training in a lake/river. There are many, many benefits to training in open water.  Reducing swim anxiety is just one of them. Of course, you want to be sure you take all the necessary safety precautions if you hope to truly stay safe and relaxed in the water.

  1. Never swim alone - There are plenty of triathlon clubs and swim groups that have organized or semi-organized swims in open water. Also, if you get involved in your local club there will always be people that are looking for training partners. We are all in the same boat (no pun intended)....No one wants to train alone in open water, and everyone knows the value of doing it on a regular basis.
  2. Be aware of your surroundings - Swimmers often share the open water with boats, jet skis, canoes, etc. Wear a bright colored swim cap and continuously sight for potential hazards or obstacles in the water. I often practice in a river and occasionally there are large tree branches or debris that has floated down stream into the area I swim. I try to sight in the water every 4th or 5th stroke to make sure I am not going to bump into something and to ensure I am staying on line with my target. This is excellent practice as in a race you also always need to be aware of other swimmers and ensure you are taking the shortest line to the finish in the water.
  3. Be aware of weather conditions - Weather can be a factor when training in open water. I train in open water 2-3 times a week and it is amazing how weather affects the conditions in the water. Again this is excellent practice. You definitely have to swim differently if there is a lot of chop to the water versus a completely calm day.Training in all kinds of weather eliminates stress on race day. You will know how to swim in all conditions!
  4. Practice with the equipment you use in a race - If you plan on using a wetsuit in your race then wear one in training. If you know you definitely can't use a wetsuit in your upcoming event then train without one in practice. A few years ago I hardly ever wore my wetsuit and was extremely uncomfortable wearing one. I finally started training with a wetsuit and now I am very comfortable. Practice..Practice..Practice...You will never be comfortable and confident with equipment if you only use it in a race.

  5. Use a swim buoy - I mentioned using a swim buoy in an earlier post and I have received a lot of questions and inquiries about how to use a swim buoy during training. I created a video to explain the use of a swim buoy during training in open water. Check out the video below. 


Swimming in open water can be a very rewarding experience and is a lot more enjoyable than swimming in a pool. If you enjoy running you wouldn't do all of your running on a track, right? Not to mention, you are training to compete in triathlons and most of them are in open water. Doing all of your training in a pool is not going to eliminate any of your open water anxiety. Get into the open water and start swimming for REAL. You will be glad you did.

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Overcoming Open Water Swim Anxiety

Posted by David Hardy
David Hardy
VTR Expert
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, May 29, 2012
in Training

All triathletes at one time or another have experienced open water swim anxiety. It is impossible to predict when it will happen. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that can trigger a panic attack. Earlier this month I had a "mini" panic attack in the water during the Bassman Triathlon. I started out swimming fine for the first few minutes but then my goggles completely filled with water, and I couldn't see a thing. My speed dropped and I started getting bumped in the water. I couldn't see, people were banging into me, and I started to gasp for breath. Just like that, a 20 year triathlon veteran was having a silly panic attack in the water. I was able to fight through the panic, calm down, and successfully complete the swim, but for several minutes I was in difficulty. (see Bassman blog post)

Why do we all panic at times in the water? Well...I think it is obvious. On the bike you can stop if you are tired, on the run you can walk or stop. In the water if you can't make it, you need to be rescued or you will drown. It's that simple. All triathletes know this and most take the necessary precautions to stay safe while training in open water. How do you stay safe and minimize the chance of having a panic attack in a race? Practice..Practice..Practice...Just like everything else. If you only swim in open water during a race and you only race 5 or 6 times a year do you really expect to be comfortable in the water? Once the water warms up in April/May as a triathlete it is time to start training in open water. A few years ago I started swimming 1-2 times a week in open water. In a short amount of time I started to feel more and more comfortable in the water. You learn how to navigate, deal with choppy conditions, pacing, etc. All of those things cannot be learned in the pool. Not to mention you get more comfortable swimming in your wetsuit.

In order to be safe I use a swim buoy . I have it attached to my ankle, and it floats behind me while I swim. It pulls on your leg a little bit but before long you don't even notice it. Any issues in the water and I have a safety buoy of my own to lean on. That is the only way to go. Anything can happen in the water, and you want to stay safe while training. I highly encourage anyone who struggles with anxiety in the water to join a group (never swim alone), get a swim buoy, and start training in open water. Before long you will notice a big difference in how you feel in the water, and your swim confidence will increase dramatically.

Start practicing in open water and maybe next time this won't be that intimidating....


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