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How to Avoid Panicking When Open Water Swimming

Why do we sometimes panic when we swim in open water? 

There are 3 root causes of panic attacks that have individual factors: genetic predisposition, anxiety stemming from childhood and response to the challenges of adulthood.

A lot of us have an odd fear of some kind ie. snakes, spiders, the dark, going to the dentist.  Sometimes we can make some sort of logic from it but not always. 

When faced with that fear you start to panic because you don’t know how to deal with the perceived threat to your survival. Your brain steps in.  When you are unfamiliar with a situation and feel threatened your brain will find any way to get you out as quickly and safely as possible .  

Because these fears are deep-rooted, they can take swimmers by surprise. You may not think you’ll be affected, but suddenly, when you’re in cold water unable to see more than a couple of inches ahead of you, an instinctive, subconscious level kicks in and you panic.

Training your mind is as important as training your body.

It is suggested you train your mind to deal with situations that may arise when in the open water.  Firstly 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? 

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

Next, think about how to trigger your brain into using the solution you have written down if you find yourself in a panicked situation.  Tell yourself ahead of time – if that challenge occurs, this is what I need to do.

Don’t let race day or any day panic ruin your swim.

Many people choose to swim with a tow float, an inflatable buoy that is towed behind them on a short leash. While not designed as a buoyancy device, they do give the reassurance that if you needed something to hand onto you have one. They also have the added bonus of making you more visible to other water users, reducing any anxiety you may have about boats not seeing you while you swim. 

swim secure floats

Swim England suggest the following before an open water swim:

  • Breathing: controlled, rhythmical, steady. Don’t gasp in big breaths
  • Stroke: slow and strong. Slow down your rhythm and focus on using your core strength
  • Rest stroke: If you need a breather, switch to breaststroke or front paddle
  • Star float or tread water: If you need to, stop and take a few moments

Most of all, it’s worth remembering that it’s normal to feel a bit panicked to begin with and that these feelings will pass.

The cold, dark water triggers an instinct in us all: there’s nothing wrong with you and you can do it. Enjoy the water safely. 

Jason Tait of South West Swim wrote a blog in relation to Swim Starts and Finishes for Open Water & Triathlon Swimming. Click here to read.  

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