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Triathlon Swimming Technique: How to Swim Panic Free in Open Water

Taren Gesell

No matter how much triathlon training you've got under your belt or how many races you’ve successfully swam (and biked and ran!), there’s just something about open water swimming that incites a racing heart and invokes a bit of panic. However, all that can be controlled so that your fear of open water will be a thing of the past thanks to this guide.

Actually, without open water swim training, there are good reasons to feel panic in open water. We’ve already mentioned that water in itself is a foreign environment that naturally brings up our innate “fight or flight” reaction. Moreover, a triathlon open water swim is a challenging event. All of these people are kicking and slapping us, trying to get ahead, chaos reigns, you’re getting hit and bashed around… all justifying that it’s normal to feel panic.

But here’s the good news: you can practice for open water even in the pool, and you can develop skills that help you stay calm and collected on race day. You’ll be able to enjoy the swim and jump on your bike panic-free, too. 

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The differences between pool swimming and open water swimming;
  • How to get over the fear of open water through 6 easy tips;
  • 3 triathlon open water swim drills for the pool.

Pool Swimming vs. Open Water Swimming

Becoming a confident swimmer with a smooth technique takes time and practice. If you’ve been following our advice on developing a swimming technique in the pool, you’ll now be able to comfortably swim laps indoors by leveraging that straight, smooth body position that allows you to glide with minimal effort in the water. Hopefully, you’re also panic-free when it comes to breathing while swimming.

That said, the open water is a wild place. And it gets even wilder when you’re surrounded by other swimmers on race day! So, here are the challenges of open water swimming when compared to your pool workouts:

  • Need to sight. In open water, unlike the pool, you don’t get the benefit of swimming lanes. You’ll need to develop a sense of where you’re going because positioning yourself relative to other swimmers can affect your body position, causing your legs to sink, and most other swimmers are swimming cooked; so you don’t want to follow them.
  • Swim stroke changes. This is influenced by other competitors as you try to avoid colliding with them or simply keep swimming straight when people are coming at you from all sides. Additionally, there may be waves that throw you off course. You need to swim stronger and punchier with a faster stroke rate than most people use in the pool. 
  • It’s hard to relax. The fear of open water comes from the uncontrolled nature of your environment. Add to that the movement of the waves and the unsettling commotion of everyone around you, coupled with trying to swim as hard as you can; you’ll spend so much more energy than you would be swimming the same distance at the pool. 
  • Breathing is more of a challenge. Waves will crash over you as you try to take a breath, causing potentially missed breaths, which in turn causes panic, despite all the great techniques you’ve mastered in the pool. You need to be comfortable with breathing on both sides and move differently.

6 Ways To Get Over The Fear of Open Water

While several challenges make triathletes develop a fear of open water, you can prepare for this and control it – and ultimately overcome it. 

Here are six ways to tackle the fear and become confident for your triathlon open water swims.

  1. Relax your body

This is easier said than done, but it comes with practice in open water. One of the reasons that a triathlon open water swim feels scary is that it’s taking place in a foreign environment. There might be waves, water currents, and lots of people around you. To make it easier to manage this on race day, practice getting into open water and relaxing.

Remember: you cannot fight the water! Panic in open water comes from resisting the waves, moving erratically and increasing your heart rate. Being loose and relaxed is better than fighting against the force of the water. Remember this next time you go for a swim outdoors.

Ideally, get into open water at least 4-6 times before you enter your first triathlon or open water swim race. In a perfect world these swims will take place with friends around you so you can get used to swimming alongside others. BONUS TIP: use a swim bubble like a New Wave Swim Buoy for safety.

  1. Get out of your own head

Meditation and relaxation techniques can work wonders for race preparation in general. Particularly for open water swimming, practicing meditation can help you empty your mind of those niggling feelings of self-doubt, anxiety or panic. This lowers your heart rate and makes you a relaxed swimmer.

Start practicing deep, calm breathing the second you enter the open water and keep that mellow vibe throughout your swim. Humming while breathing out helps calm the nerves too.

  1. Practice for open water in the pool

Not everyone has easy access to an open water swimming spot. That’s absolutely fine, although we do recommend getting open water experience at least 4-6 times before your race. To learn how to not panic in the water, you can practice drills in the pool (more details below).

Deliberately add these to your workouts when you’re swimming with a group of friends, recreating the atmosphere you’ll find on race day.

  1. Avoid the "washing machine" on race day

No, we’re not talking about washing your clothes… the "washing machine" refers to the chaos that ensues immediately after the start of a triathlon. People are all running into the water, bashing the waves, kicking erratically, punching ahead and trying to get their spot at the front of the swim pack.

You can swim faster by avoiding the others. Especially if you’re prone to panic in open water, don’t make it even tougher by getting embroiled in the jostling for space at the middle of the pack. Either go to the side or wait for the others to swim off, then do your own thing at your own pace. 

Even if you go a long way off to the side of the swim start you may only make the swim course a few meters longer, that additional distance will be more than made up for if you’re able to swim calmly without fear.

  1. Deal with waves

Waves make open water swimming challenging. They get in the way of sighting and taking in breaths, and they can sway you off course. To ensure you can breathe through the waves, push your face a little deeper into the water as you swim to get “under” the waves, followed by turning your body a little more to catch a breath “over” the waves. 

Because your face is deeper in the water, you'll have to turn more to get air in. But, this helps protect you from the waves hitting against your face while you breathe in. 

Another way to breathe easily through the waves is to time your breath at the top of the wave, as opposed to when you’re under the wave and the water is crashing over your face. 

  1. Practice makes perfect

No matter how much you prepare in the pool, getting into the open water is the single key tip to help you overcome fear and swim smoothly on race day. Remember, try to get in at least 4-6 sessions of open water swimming before your race and think of all the ways you can minimize stress and relax your body and mind.

TRIATHLON SWIMMING FOUNDATIONS is our top rated book that has the exact method we recommend new triathletes take to develop comfort and capability in the swim.

Do These 3 Pool Drills to Prepare for Your Triathlon Open Water Swim

Once you’ve had the chance to practice being in open water, your heart rate will come down nicely, and you won’t have to worry about that feeling of panic simply from being in a strange, rough environment. Swimming in open water a few times before your race allows you to practice sighting, tests your kit to make sure it’s up to scratch, gets your wetsuit wet which will loosen it up so you don’t feel constricted, and acclimates you to the changing temperature of open water.

But there’s one other significant factor that leads to panic in open water for triathletes: the race day chaos. If you take our advice and stay away from the "washing machine" where everyone wrestles for space at the start of the race, you’ll already avoid most of the chaos. 

Here are three great drills to practice in the pool so that, even if you’re not able to get into open water, you'll be well prepared on race day.

1. Seeded starts

Split up your group with a few slower swimmers out front practicing a deep water start, with the more confident faster swimmers at the wall. Start at the same time and swim to the end. By that point, you’ll all be together as you try to turn and swim back. Toes will be touching, elbows crossing each other – there will be a bit of overcrowding. Get used to that feeling and repeat it a few times! This will keep you panic-free during the race. 

See an example here and here.

2. Drafting train

Another good way to get used to being touched is by doing this drafting drill where everyone swims right behind each other. You can even ask one friend to swim with you and deliberately go for your toes until that feeling no longer freaks you out!

Additionally, you can use the drafting train drill to teach yourself how to draft other people in the water. While drafting on the bike is not allowed, it's a great strategy to avoid sighting in the swim, especially if you’re not a confident open water swimmer. That way, following someone in the open water is much easier and saves you some headaches (or neck-aches!).

3. Sighting technique

Finally, work on sighting in open water by doing drills in the pool. Sighting is tricky during a triathlon open water swim: you need to figure out where you’re going without compromising your position in the water. As your body works like a seesaw, lifting your head too high to see where you’re going causes your legs to sink. This, in turn, makes you resort to more kicking and moving erratically to get back to a smooth swim motion.

But, because you’re in open water, by the time you contend with waves, other people and any panic you might be feeling, you’ll be swimming a lot slower and less efficiently. So, to develop better sighting technique, check out this diagram showing you how to practice sighting in the pool, as well as this drill explanation.

Overcoming the Fear of Open Water

The triathlon open water swim can be conquered with some practice, both in the pool and in open water. Take open water practice one step at a time, first focus on relaxing your body and letting yourself move with the water, then develop sighting and drafting techniques that allow you to move easier on race day. Finally, make sure you settle yourself down during the swim. After the initial shock, when your heart rate is high because of adrenaline and trying to find space within the pack, it’s easy to panic when you continue to swim hard and not focus on your form.

Whether you take our advice and stay out of the leading swim pack on race day, or you want to be more competitive and keep swimming with the others, remember to settle into a sustainable rhythm that will see you through to the first transition.

Finally, as you’re exiting the water, your legs feel like jelly because all your blood is in your upper body. To avoid stumbling around, do a few strong kicks in the last 100m of your swim, so you can run out of the water confidently and into your transition to the bike.

Read more

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Get all the information you need about your first Ironman-distance triathlon;

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Taren Gesell
Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MOTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast, Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

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