Learning to Stop the Panic in Open Water Swimming

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Morro Bay Triathlon start on Mother's Beach

During my first bunch start triathlon, a woman locked her arms around my leg and shouted, “Please, help me back to shore!” Needless to say, she was panicking–her panic cued my own panic, and we both ended up floating on surfboards as our wave swam farther and farther out to sea. With all the flailing arms and kicking feet, it’s easy to get intimidated and stay intimidated. Perhaps Clif Bar has captured the true way to train with their video:

But short of getting your friends together and having them beat you with sticks, you can get more comfortable with group swims before your next race.  In order to stop my panic reflex, my swim coach concocted a fear-inducing drill that forced me to calm down and simply focus on my swim stroke. And it worked. Here’s how to do the drill:

Get a few friends together in the shallow end of the pool. It might be a good idea to ask permission, or explain what you’re doing to the lifeguards before you all jump in and splash around. If you have three or four swimmers helping you out, station them at different places along the lane where you’re swimming. You should also keep at least one friend to swim alongside you.

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Swim laps without using the wall–in other words, turn around in the lane by swimming without the aid of open or flip turns. Since you’ll have a person swimming alongside you, you’ll feel some semblance of the claustrophobic turns at the buoy during a race-day swim where people tend to bunch in order to take the shortest route. Decide on how many laps you’ll take around the lane, and try your best to complete the entire swim (of course, if you do panic, don’t hurt yourself–stop if you really need to). If you start to feel yourself freaking out, remind yourself to focus on keeping your form. I repeat mantras having to do with specific parts of my technique that I’m working on– something like, “Don’t drop your right arm when you breath.” It keeps my mind on the proper stroke, and off the mayhem around me.

Besides having a swimming partner navigating the lane with you, your other friends should do their best to throw off your focus as you swim by them. They should grab your legs, splash water in your face, knock your arms as you stretch forward, and just generally be obnoxious without actually endangering you in any way. This is also a good reason why you should perform this exercise in the shallow end–if anyone freaks out, s/he can simply stand up and breathe.

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You should try to swim the entire distance of your next race using this method. Without the walls to push off, with friends jostling you and making waves, and with a fellow swimmer to practice overtaking, you’ll get closer to the craziness in a true triathlon swim start.

As an added bonus, it’s really fun to race your friends! Practice spotting and passing your friend who is swimming next to you. You’ll get the competitive adrenaline flowing, and you’ll also learn a little more about your maximum race pace.

This drill helped my swim starts immensely, but the most important part of having a great swim is to just, well, swim. Take a master’s swim class to up your distance, and work the kinks out of your technique. But just get in the pool. The more time you spend swimming, the more comfortable you’ll be swimming–and the faster you’ll go.

Have fun!


(Note: Be careful! I am not condoning any dangerous behavior here. Make sure to perform this drill under the supervision of a lifeguard, and don’t endanger yourselves or others. You should always use extreme caution in water. Try this at your own risk.)

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

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