Strategies for Open Water Swim Anxiety


I have a fear of open water. It’s a dark and scary abyss and my imagination always gets the best of me. Perhaps it was watching Jaws at an impressionable age…( which would also explain my fear of clowns, thank-you Stephen King). At my very first race, I could barely get my face in the water to form a proper stroke. It’s never a good thing when you 1) look up and see no other racers around 2) a guy in a kayak is asking if I’m ok and then proceeds to point to the correct buoy 3).. it’s nowhere close to where I’m heading. As with anything, experience alleviates the fear and with these strategies, you can channel your inner Diana Nyad.

Focus on your breathing technique and make necessary adjustments: It’s much easier to develop a consistent breathing rhythm while training in a pool. With a lot more variables in open water ie. temperature, current, other swimmers, it’s often more difficult and you may need to make adjustments from your regular pace. Perhaps slowing down or breathing every stroke as opposed to every other stroke. I usually exert more energy than necessary at the start due to adrenaline, dodging other swimmers, and an increased heart rate. The sooner I focus on consistent breathing, my body relaxes and I can ease into my own rhythm.

Practice! – Seems obvious? Whether a ocean or lake swim, try to practice in that environment in your full race gear. (with a buddy of course!) Make sure you are comfortable in your wetsuit and your goggles. If you can practice in a group setting, even better. Even sharing lanes at the pool can be of benefit as it affects your normal swim rhythm. Don’t forget to practice sighting. In a perfect scenario, you are an efficient sighter and can incorporate it seamlessly into your swim stroke. For the rest of us, do the best you can and as often as you like to feel comfortable.

Visualization- Focus on whatever calms you. A friend once told me to try focusing on my left thumb and nothing else. I loved the simplicity of that. When my imagination starts to run wild and my heart starts pounding, I do a thumb check and all is good in the world.

Plan for the unexpected – WIth so many uncontrollable variables with open water swimming, you have to prepare for the unexpected. This summer I did the Brooklyn Bridge Swim in the east river with NYC Swim. It started fairly easy but due to the tidal shift, it began to feel like an endless pool. I found myself going from freestyle, to breaststroke, backstroke to a strange doggy paddle/ side stroke to get out of the current under the Manhattan bridge. It wasn’t pretty but I didn’t panic. You are allowed to change your stroke. You can even lay on your back, float, stand up if possible and take a breather. If getting kicked in the face or trampled at a mass start is not your thing, you can hang back toward the pack. In a perfect scenario you should be positioned with other swimmers in your skill level and not holding back faster swimmers or wading through slower ones. Also, keep in mind that sometimes the quickest way from point A to B is not the easiest. There are often bottlenecks at turnaround buoys and it may make sense to give yourself extra room by swimming further out and around.

You may come to realize that although you are never 100% comfortable in the water, the goal is to feel confident enough to enjoy the challenge!

Strategies for Open Water Swim Anxiety