How To Prevent An Open Water Swim Panic Attack Before You Race

After months in the pool practicing your swim you owe it to yourself to best prepare for the open water on race day.

It sounds obvious, but open water can get the better of you if you are not prepared.

Panic on race day is one of the biggest reasons why triathletes fail to convert speed from the pool to open water.


Picture it with me…

Race morning. Start gun blasts and you’re off swimming.

300m into the race you feel it coming.

Oh no, here we go… No…

No, please no….



You’re out of breath. Your heart feels like it’s pounding out of your chest.

You stick your head up of the water.
You start doing breaststroke.
You try rolling over onto your back or treading water.
Anything to catch your next breath!

At this point the only thing going through your mind is surviving.

While you panic, the rest of the pack swims around you.
Over you, and away from you towards the swim finish.

The triathletes that enjoy the sport the most don’t just survive the open water. They thrive in the chaos and unpredictability of it.

I want your your hard work to transfer from the pool to open water.

how to not open water swim panic

How You Can Thrive In Open Water Instead of Panicking On Race Day

1. Hit the Open Water More Often

Your experience in any given moment is a direct reflection of your understanding about it. You are panicking because you don’t know how to deal with the perceived threat to your survival.

You brain has a funny way of protecting you. When you are unfamiliar with a situation your brain will find any way to get you out, as quickly as it can.

Thing is, your brain doesn’t care much for your ultimate goal when it perceives a threat to your survival. So if returning you to “safety” means stopping, breaststroking or calling the life guard over, your brain will do it!

None of those will help you crush your swim goals though.

The better your understanding of open water, the better decisions your brain will make when it begins to perceive a threat.

Give yourself the chance to experience similar conditions to those you will be racing in. The more familiar you are with situations that arise at the start of a race, the more comfortable you will.

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

If you don’t expose yourself to the open water, there is a good chance it will get the better of you on race day. Create more opportunities for understanding and learning. Hit the open water more often and familiarizing yourself with it!

2. Work On Take Out Speed

Going out too hard and fast in the first 200-400m of your race is often the catalyst for a panic attack.

So work on your take out speed during training sets.

Prepare your body for the fast start. Teach it how to settle down into a pace and rhythm without stopping or having to do breaststroke.

The more you practice, the better you will transition from the sprint start to your steady race pace.

Don’t waste the months spent improving your swimming in the pool only to panic on race day. Set yourself up for success by practicing in open water and working on your take out speed.

3. Mentally Visualize and Prepare Before You Race

In 2011 The British Journal of Sports Medicine focused a study on IRONMAN triathletes. The study concluded that conscious thoughts have a direct impact on your performance.

Training your mind is as important as training your body.

How can you train your mind for the swim start?

Identify a situation you fear may happen and write it down.

Now think about where your focus needs to be in order to get through this moment successfully?

Is it your breathing? Is it your posture? Is it your technique? Is it just focusing on yourself and racing your own race?

Write out what you need to do to resolve the issue.

Next, think about what you need to do to trigger your brain to use the solution you have written down.

Maybe it’s a physical cue, or a mantra, maybe some words? It can be anything that will trigger your brain to start the solution you came up with.

Write out all the potential challenges that could arise in your race. Then program your response – don’t leave it to yourself in the moment.

Tell yourself ahead of time – if that challenge comes, this is what I do, so it’s not left to chance!

Don’t let race day panic ruin your swim. Prepare physically and mentally before you even get to the start day.

Open Water swimming can be nerve racking. If you’ve got a question related to panic attacks in open water, leave me a comment below.


Related Advice & Tips:

I wrote this post as part of a series on swimming well in open water. Read the rest of the posts in the series here:

Part 1: The Six Culprits Of Slow Open Water Times
Part 2: How To Prevent An Open Water Swim Panic Attack Before Race Day
Part 3: How To Stop A Triathlon Swim Panic Attack On Race Day
Part 4: How To Swim Straight In Open Water
Part 5: Wetsuit Tips For Open Water Swimming

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3 thoughts on “How To Prevent An Open Water Swim Panic Attack Before You Race”

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